A British Paint Company Blends a New Environmental Effort

The concept of upcycling — the process of making new objects from unwanted or waste materials — might sound familiar when it comes to clothes and furniture. But what about paint?

David Mottershead, a chemist and the founder and managing director of the Little Greene Paint Company, a family-run business, began considering this three years ago.

“We’ve been wracked with the idea that there is always some waste paint that exists out of the process,” he said in a recent video interview from his office in the business’s headquarters in Manchester, England, where he was joined by his daughter, Ruth Mottershead, Little Greene’s creative director, and his son, Ben Mottershead, the business’s operations director. Its factory is in Bethesda, Wales, in the foothills of Snowdonia.

Waste paint, he said, was “either produced in the factory as part of the process, in which case we’ve got too much of a particular color” or “sometimes customers return paints that they bought previously and don’t know what to do with them.”

Despite sending as much excess paint as possible to schools, art galleries and charity projects, Ms. Mottershead said there always was more. As a result, they estimated, as much as 60,000 liters (15,800 gallons) of paint a year were being sent for incineration, which, Mr. Mottershead said, was “a tragic waste of raw materials,” as well as energy.

The answer? Re:mix, a collection of 20 shades — from among the brand’s total of 196 shades — reformulated from leftover, unwanted and returned Little Greene paints, although they stressed that none of the paint had been opened or contaminated. The range, which is a blend of matte and eggshell finishes and suitable for indoor use, debuted in March and is available on the Little Greene website.

“It was something we felt we needed to tackle in our quest to become more sustainable and more eco-friendly,” Ms. Mottershead said.

The family initially came up with the idea to mix waste paints into custom colors. But a conversation with their laboratory team pointed them in a different direction: “a concept whereby you could take different versions of blue colors,” for example, Mr. Mottershead said, “and make one of our standard colors from it.”A computer algorithm can identify each waste paint color in what is called the color space and then mathematically determine how, by mixing, to make another color. “It’s a really clever bit of technology,” Mr. Mottershead said.

“With Re:mix,” Ms. Mottershead said, “we couldn’t really provide a trend-led color card. What we were trying to do was figure out a color offer that was nice, that was usable. But what can we actually make from the colors that we’ve got back.” Which means limited runs of the range. If more greens are returned in one year, for example, then a green might be added to the Re:mix offering.

Seven or eight people are involved in the process, including trained technicians who do quality control, looking for fungus, bacteria and viscosity. Assessing the paint is “quite an artisanal skill,” Mr. Mottershead said.

It takes four days to produce 5,000 liters of Re:mix paint; the same amount of new Little Greene paint can be produced in three hours. “It’s a very laborious, morally very happy process,” Ben Mottershead said.

And at 28 pounds (almost $32) for 2.5 liters (a little more than half a gallon), Re:mix is half the price of Little Greene’s standard paints. Mr. Mottershead said the pricing structure covered the cost of production, but also offered customers an “opportunity to buy something which is beautiful at a bargain price and introduce them to the brand.”

Before establishing the business in 1996, Mr. Mottershead had worked at a large industrial paint company but had become increasingly frustrated and so decided to set up his own business that, he said, “could make just better quality paints.”

Initially he embarked on a joint venture with HMG Paints, based in Manchester, which produced a trade paint called Bradite. At the time, HMG owned the factory in Wales, but was about to close it — which led to the founding of Little Greene. Mr. Mottershead’s children joined Little Greene in 2011 and, in 2016, he bought out HMG’s remaining interest in the company.

“We’re here for the long term,” Mr. Mottershead said, “it’s a family business with a 30-year vision not a 30-month vision.” Little Greene does not disclose its annual revenue, but it now has 145 employees, 18 of which are at the factory.

But even as it is trying to offer an environmentally friendly product, “our philosophy is that the environmental version has got to be as least as efficacious as the standard product,” he said. “Re:mix is just setting the clock at a different speed in a different direction.”

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