Story Highlights• San Francisco recycles about 30,000 gallons of latex paint every year
• Recycled paint is shipped to locations world-wide for free
By Jim Kavanagh
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(CNN) -- The highest-volume product brought to most municipal waste collection centers during spring cleanup is paint.
"Everybody who owns a house has five cans of paint in their garage, and they're all half full," said Robert Reed of Norcal Waste Systems Inc., which runs the waste collection program for the city of San Francisco, California.
What to do with it all?
Some collection programs don't want latex paint because there's so much of it and it can't be processed into anything else. (Oil-based paint can be burned as fuel.)
They suggest using it up by laying on a couple of extra coats, or giving it to a neighbor, a school or a theater group. It can also be mixed with sand, allowed to dry and tossed out with the regular trash.
San Francisco had a different idea.
The city's Household Hazardous Waste Recycling Facility, operated by Norcal, takes in about 30,000 gallons of latex paint every year.
The paint is segregated into color groups, then blended and tinted into a few basic colors, Reed said. The paint is then given away in 5-gallon buckets to anyone who wants it. (Miami, Florida, does this too.)
Even so, "we end up with more than we can give away," Reed said.
That's where Humberto Quinonez comes in.
Once or twice a year, Quinonez arranges to have hundreds of gallons of recycled paint shipped to other countries for use in schools, hospitals and other public buildings. (See a gallery of Mexican schools that have benefitted from the donated paint.)
"America doesn't export a lot of things," Reed said. "Why not export a little community service?"
Most of it goes to Mexico and El Salvador, but shipments also have been sent to Tonga and Fiji in the South Pacific and to Mali in central Africa.
Bureaucracy complicated initial shipments to Mexico, but Quinonez and a relative in Los Cabos devised a way around the red tape by using a local business that has an import license.
"Now we know how it works, and every time we send something it gets a little easier," he said.
Quinonez and another employee accompany every shipment, paying their own way and using a combination of vacation and company time.
Norcal employs a number of immigrants, who arrange for shipments to be sent to their hometowns.
"There are a few guys lining up now. They really want to come," Quinonez said.
Norcal, an employee-owned company, foots the bill for the sturdy 5-gallon buckets and the shipping costs, which can be substantial.
As much as 3,700 gallons (740 buckets) can be sent by truck. There's virtually no limit on loads moved by sea; the biggest one so far was 4,500 gallons (900 buckets).
"Now, in liters that's a lot more," Quinonez joked. "It sounds more impressive."
Touching scene in hometown
In Quinonez's hometown of Durango, Mexico, a load of paint went to a school for the blind and an agency that operates 10 homes for AIDS patients.
"We wanted to participate in the painting but they wouldn't let us," he said. "... I was willing to roll up my sleeves and do some work, but they wouldn't let us do it. They had so many workers, they didn't need the help. We were probably in their way."
He said he wept at the reaction of a family living in one of the AIDS houses who had endured harsh discrimination.
"It was really heartbreaking, but they were so happy," he said. "They kind of felt like they were somebody because people would actually care about them. Just because somebody would paint their home, they were somebody."
A contact in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, requested help after militants defaced buildings with graffiti. "They need some paint to restore the beauty there," Quinonez said.
In Santiago, Mexico, donated paint was used to beautify a school -- the children painted a mural on the side of the building.
"We went to Durango and Santiago and Los Cabos, and then we looked at the paint on the walls of the schools, and it was really nice. They did a really nice job of combining the colors. They were creative."
And it's high-quality paint, free of lead and other toxins. In Los Cabos they tested it with a pressure washer and it stayed put, he said. They're not used to that in Mexico, where paint is often thinned down "like Kool-Aid," he said with a laugh. Even the buckets are better than what's generally available there, and people can reuse them when the paint is gone, he said.
"Now they're asking us for more. We're really popular now."
Reed sees it as a kind of diplomacy.
"America isn't loved in a lot of places," he said, "so maybe something like this can help with that a little bit."
Norcal Waste Systems employees Ousmane Sy (left) and Luke Barizon handle hundreds of gallons of paint at San Francisco's household recycling facility.