The Green Scene

Painting the town green

Natural as dirt: Earthpaint founder Tom Rioux shows off his biodegradable paint at The Healthy House, a green-building store in Fletcher. Photo by jonathan welch

When Tom Rioux set out to develop a nontoxic, regionally sourced paint product several years ago, he wasn’t just following the green-building fad. A painter by trade, Rioux was in recovery from Wegener’s granulomatosis, a respiratory disease, and he wanted to design a paint that wouldn’t pose a health risk.

“I spent two years being really crippled,” says Rioux. Although the medical community has not identified the cause of the disease, Rioux believes his illness was linked to his long-term exposure to hazardous chemicals in the water-based acrylic paints he worked with for years. “I thought, could it really be the stuff that I’ve been spreading in mass quantities all over the place?”

Conventional paints—and even some billed as environmentally friendly—often contain volatile organic compounds, which are linked to adverse health effects such as respiratory, eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, nausea and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Thanks to a strict healing regimen and the influence of a Zen center near Asheville, Rioux says he was able to overcome his illness. His next step was to start playing with dirt. “It started out as earth paint—like, dirt in the back yard,” he says, laughing. “I saw the soil as being beautiful. A lot of times paint is earth, or clay, and I wanted to see if we could make some from dirt.” He also tried his hand at food-grade finishes that could be used safely on wooden cookware. “I just got the purest, cleanest stuff I could possibly use and I spread it into my cutting board,” he says, describing the flax oil, beeswax and citrus-solvent mixture that’s now one of his company’s top-selling items. “I was making the stuff in my garage and then basement. It’s gotten way bigger than that now.”

Today, Rioux, who lives in West Asheville, is the CEO of Earthpaint, which boasts a Statesville manufacturing facility capable of producing more than 1 million gallons of paint, plaster and other finishes per year. The products, which he formulates with the help of environmental scientists and toxicologists, are touted as safe and biodegradable, made from natural materials sourced from locations within a day’s drive of Asheville. Earthpaint’s raw ingredients include clay, lime, nontoxic acrylic, linseed and flax oils, citrus solvent and pine resin—a byproduct of the paper industry.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Earthpaint’s factory is its approach to meeting its electrical needs. A gravity-fed system powers most of its manufacturing equipment, so the plant uses only about 600 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month. (The typical American household consumes an average of 888 kwh per month, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.) To offset the electricity consumed, Earthpaint buys 1,000 kwh of wind power each month from a generating station in Atlanta.

Like many alternative, environmentally sensitive products, Earthpaint costs more than a standard can of paint at a big-box retailer, but Rioux says the price is comparable to that of any premium-quality brand. Local businesses offering Earthpaint include Nest Organics, Shelter Ecology and Build It Naturally in Asheville, as well as The Healthy House, a new green-building store that just opened in Fletcher.

Meanwhile, Rioux still takes pains to avoid hazardous vapors from paints and cleaning products, and he aims to make Earthpaint products 100 percent safe. “If my son can’t come in the lab when I’m making it,” he declares, “I won’t make it.”

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All part of the plan

Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department is dusting off its decade-old master plan and infusing it with fresh community perspectives. The new plan, meant to guide the development of parks, greenways, other recreational facilities and cultural-arts events citywide, will be shaped by public input drawn from a series of upcoming meetings.

“Greenways are a very popular topic,” notes Assistant Director Debbie Ivester of Parks & Rec. Ideas concerning bike paths, open space and more will also be welcome at the meetings. Slated to come before City Council in August, the master plan is being spearheaded by GreenPlay LLC, a Colorado-based consultant hired by the city.

The open public meetings will be held on Thursday, Jan. 10; Monday, Jan. 14; and Thursday, Jan. 17. Call Asheville Parks and Recreation at 259-5800 for details.


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