Waterwise – Cleaning Painting Equipment After Household Use

Reduce the amount of paint left on the brush by pressing the bristles against the side of the container to squeeze out any remaining paint. Jessica Moore, ©2020, Clemson University

Reduce the amount of paint left on the brush by pressing the bristles against the side of the container to squeeze out any remaining paint.
Jessica Moore, ©2020, Clemson University

Improper paint disposal and brush cleaning can strain to the municipal wastewater treatment system, damage septic systems and pollute groundwater and downstream water bodies. Properly cleaning paint equipment can save money as well as preserve the health of the community.

Reduce Your Clean-Up

Reduce the need for clean-up by:

  • Using less paint by only purchasing what you need and pouring out small amounts at a time.
  • Using disposable liners, brushes, rollers, and sponges.
  • Reclaiming excess paint by squeezing rollers, brushes, and sponges before washing them.
    • A 5-in-1 painters’ tool makes this a quick and relatively clean job.
  • Washing water-based or latex-based paint off before it dries. Once it dries, a solvent is needed to clean the equipment.


Oil-Based Paints:

Oil-based paint will not wash off with water: it requires the use of a solvent. This solvent should never, under any circumstances, be washed down a drain (inside or out) or poured outside. Always wear gloves when working with a paint thinner or solvent.

How to use:

  • In a well-ventilated area, pour a small amount of thinner/solvent into a glass or metal container. There should be enough to cover the portion of the brush with paint on it.
  • Gently swirl the brush in the solvent, occasionally pressing the bristles against the sides of the container to work in the solvent.
  • After a few minutes, the paint should come off the brush.
  • Press the bristles against the side of the container again to release solvent from the bristles.
  • Repeat as needed.
  • Use a disposable rag to wipe down the brush and remove any excess solvent. Use one more disposable rag to dry the brush.
  • The used solvent should then be disposed of properly or reused for the next project. Both methods are covered later in this factsheet.

Latex or Water-Based

Water-based paint, also called latex-based paint, is designed to be washed with soap and water. The main pigment is suspended in a water solution so it can be thinned using only water.

It is not safe to pour the paint or dirty water down a storm drain. Never wash any kind of paint with a garden hose in the yard where water can wash into a storm drain or soak into the ground. Septic systems are designed to handle human waste and toilet paper; they are not made to handle paint. Dumping anything else down a septic tank can alter the balance of bacteria in the tank and lead to septic failure. While latex paint can be washed in the sink with minimal impact on the sanitary sewer system, doing so can waste a lot of water. A three-bucket system not only uses less water on average but allows the paint waste to separate from the water, making it safe to go into the sanitary sewer system.

Three-bucket system for paint washing:

  • Fill three 5-gallon buckets about 2/3 full of water. Leave enough space in the bucket to catch any splashing.
  • In the first bucket, wash the brush or roller by submerging it in the water and scrub to release any paint that the brush absorbed.
  • Move to the second bucket when most of the excess paint is squeezed out. Repeat the same technique from the first bucket. This should get a majority of the paint out of the brush. Do a final rinse in the third bucket and wring the brush out to dry.

To separate the paint waste from the water, simply set the buckets in an area out of direct sunlight where they will not be disturbed for about 24 hours. Cap the buckets and then place them in a protected area to prevent children and animals from drinking the water while the paint settles. The paint will settle to the bottom of the container. Pour the water out inside the bathroom drain or set it all aside for cleaning after the next paint project.

Once the paint at the bottom of the bucket dries completely, it can be thrown away in the trash as household waste. To dry the paint waste more quickly, mix in cat-litter, and leave the buckets in the sun.



Excess paint should always be recycled or donated whenever possible. The EPA estimates that 10% of paint bought to paint houses and other structures end up as “leftovers”. DHEC recommends using up all the paint when possible, and if using it is not an option, then it should be donated to a school, community group, or theater group.

Not all recycling centers in SC accept paint, visit RecycleHereSC, or call your local solid waste department for a list of what is accepted in your county.


A solvent can be reused after cleaning oil-based paints off your equipment. When the equipment is clean, seal the container of used solvent, and place it where it will not be disturbed overnight. The paint will settle to the bottom, and the usable solvent will float on top. Carefully pour the clean solvent into a new glass or metal container, seal it, and label it. Whenever possible, reuse the label from the original container to help identify it in the future. The original label will have information on storage, use, and safety – the label is the law.

The paint waste that collects in the bottom of the container is considered Household Hazardous Waste and should be disposed of properly. It does not go into household trash.



DHEC allows latex or other water-based paints to be disposed of with household trash only when it is completely dried, and in a capped container.

  • Small quantities of paint can be dried by placing them in an area away from children and pets and taking the lid off.
  • Larger quantities of paint will not dry in this manner. An equal amount of cat-litter can be added into the paint and stirred together. After 10 minutes, if the mixture is not dry, add more litter. If cat-litter is not available, sawdust will work.
  • Paint hardeners can also be purchased from most home improvement retailers.

Oil-based paint must be disposed of as Household Hazardous Waste (HHW). To learn more about HHW disposal in your county, visit RecycleHereSC.


Solvents should never be poured down any stormwater or sewage drain. Solvents must be disposed of through an HHW disposal event or location. To learn more about events or options offered in your county, visit RecycleHereSC.

For more information on illicit discharges or proper disposal of materials, see the following links:

HGIC 1850 Illicit Discharges and Water Pollution


Recycling Hard-to-Manage Items


  1. EPA. (2007). Paint Quantity Report — Final | US EPA ARCHIVE DOCUMENT. MA: Abt Associates, Inc.
  2. Howard Perlman, USGS, and USGS Scott Young. “Per Capita Water Use: How Much Water Do You Use in Your Home?” USGS Water Science School,
  3. Quantifying the Disposal of Post-Consumer Architectural Paint, Environmental Protection Agency, April 2007.
  4. Recycling Hard-to-Manage Items, Environmental Protection Agency,
  5. Stormwater Management for Painters, Environment Protection Authority – South Australia, Apr. 2004.

Originally published 08/20

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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