Tips Sheet for Emerging Conservation Professionals

From Wiki

Back to Sustainable Practices Homepage

This page is maintained by the Sustainability Committee at the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC). It is intended to provide information about sustainable practices for AIC members, conservation/preservation professionals, and other interested parties within the cultural heritage profession. Please send comments and suggestions to sustainability(at)conservation-us.org.

This document is available as a PDF handout. Click File:SC Tip Sheet for ECP 2018.pdf to download.

Tips for Sustainable Conservation Practices

From the American Institute for Conservation’s Sustainability Committee

As a rising conservator, there are a number of simple things you can do to make a difference in your program or institution. Learning to use your materials in a sustainable, creative manner is an important skill for all material specialties and in every work environment. This document offers suggestions for good working habits to keep in mind as you develop as conservators and future leaders in the field.

The information below represents only a fraction of what is available on the Sustainable Practices section on AIC’s Wiki: http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Sustainable_Practices. The wiki offers more in-depth content on sustainability topics, including material use and disposal, specific conservation materials, sustainable energy use, case studies, a list of further reading, and copies of every publication, project, and webinar we have done.

Share you ideas about how your specialty can be more sustainable. Contact us at [email protected]

Reduce and Reuse

One of the best ways to be more sustainable is to reduce waste. In doing so, fewer resources are manufactured and less waste is sent to landfills. Here are some ways to use materials thoughtfully:

  • Worn materials and tools can often be “downgraded” for other purposes. In some cases, inpainting brushes can be washed and used for dusting and other tasks. Bent corrugated board can be used for placing objects on tables, and uncontaminated gloves can be repurposed for structural work.
  • Clean every material that may be reused. For example, Mylar or nonwoven fabrics used with aqueous adhesives can be soaked in a water bath overnight and dried for reuse. Cotton muslin can be repeatedly washed and repurposed.
  • Reduce waste by reusing materials. For example, cut or re-shape the tips of spent bamboo skewer swab sticks and roll your own cotton swabs. Piece together smaller scraps of polyethylene foam instead of cutting into new planks.
  • When cutting from rolls or boards (such as linen or matboard), take a moment to calculate the least wasteful cut.
  • Keep scraps of conservation materials for testing, mock-ups, in-class exercises, and small-scale interventions.
  • Recondition spent silica gel in an oven for reuse. Cobalt-chloride self-indicating silica gel is hazardous to the environment when disposed of, so use less of it by mixing it with colorless silica gel. Consider using methyl violet self-indicating silica gel, as it is less toxic.
  • Participate in a nitrile glove recycling program at your institution, such as through RightCycle or TerraCycle.
  • Consult the SC wiki page Sustainable Material Use and Disposal for more information.

Solvents, Solutions, Chemicals

  • Make small batches of solvent or gel mixtures when performing tests or small treatments.
  • Store solvents in small, self-closing containers to reduce spillage, spoilage, and evaporation.
  • Use less glassware when diluting resin solutions: Measure out the more concentrated solution in a beaker or graduated cylinder, pour that into the working container, then "rinse" the beaker with the solvent diluent, and pour that into the working container. If the diluting solvent volume is divided into two or three parts, then there are two or three opportunities to clean the beaker. When finished, there is virtually no cleanup or residue of resin.
  • When cleaning glassware after a treatment, first soak it in water with Alconox, rather than using more solvent to rinse the glassware clean. Emptying the soaking tub should be done through a screen to catch all of the solid waste "sludge" settled on the bottom.
  • Whenever possible, use the least toxic chemicals or solvents in your treatments. Refer to the Sustainability Committee’s list for specific solvents and chemicals as well as the 11 Commonly Used Solvents table by Stavroudis and the table of Preferred, Useable, and Undesirable Solvent by Alfonsi et al. for more information.

Waste Management and Recycling

In general, the paper materials used in conservation are recyclable if they are made from cellulose and do not contain additional substances, such as dried paints, adhesives, chemicals, plastic or metal components, or organic material.

Cellulosic paper that can usually be recycled:

  • Office paper - remove staples
  • Tissue papers (Japanese, buffered/unbuffered, packing & interleaving tissues of various trademarked names)
  • Blotter and papers formed without adhesives
  • Folders and cardstock - remove adhesive and labels


Cellulosic paper that may or may not be recycled:

  • Corrugated & pressed millboards* (museum-quality & not) - These boards are often formed with adhesives requiring dedicated machines to recycle them.
  • Paper towels – Due to varied recycling regulations and foreign material often found with used paper towels.


Solvents, solutions, paints, adhesives, and various chemicals* might be considered hazardous waste. As a conservator you are ultimately responsible for the proper disposal of the hazardous waste you create. Check the SDS information on your solvents for disposal information. For conservators or labs that only produce a small amount of hazardous waste, consider partnering with a local school or lab. Consult the SC publications An Introduction to How the Manufacturing and Disposal of Adhesives and Paints Affects our Environment and Hazardous Waste: Where on Earth Should it Go? for more information

Plastic* recycling varies in every city, but most have visual guides for dividing your recycling. In general, remove any contaminating material, such as dried adhesives, and in the case of containers, clean and dry before recycling. Consult the SC article Plastics are Forever: Wraps, Tools, Films and Containers used in Conservation Practice for more information.

  • In most cases, there is a way to recycle these materials, it may just take a little extra effort. For example, cardboard may have to be bundled together. Contact your local recycling and waste management facility for more information.

Conserving Energy

  • Turn off fume hoods and ventilation trunks when not in use.
  • Close the sash on fume hoods—this can be a very big energy saver!
  • Unplug ovens, hot plates, lamps, and other devices when not in use.
  • Return electronic equipment such as computers and printers to standby mode when not in use.
  • Place "Switch me off" stickers on appliances that do not need to be on continuously.
  • Use a variable transformer for heat tools and vacuums. This saves energy and allows for more precise control.
  • Defrost freezers yearly and check that the doors seal properly.
  • Use purified water (distilled, deionized, reverse osmosis) only as needed. Consult the SC article When the Well’s Dry, We Know the Worth of Water and the SC wiki section with [Information_about_Specific_Materials#Information_about_Water | Information about Water]] for more information.
  • Consult the SC wiki page on Sustainable Energy Use for more information.

Additional Resources

Image Permanence Institute. “Sustainable Preservation Practices for Managing Storage Environments,” Image Permanence Institute Sustainability. http://www.ipisustainability.org/ (accessed February 8, 2018).

Brophy, Sarah, et al. “Small(er) and Green(er): Sustainability on a Limited Budget,” Paper presented at American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting, May 2013. Handout available online: http://aam-us.org/docs/default-source/professional-resources/small(er)-and-green(er)-sustainability-on-a-limited-budget.pdf?sfvrsn=0 (accessed February 8, 2018).

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Greening Your Lab,” MIT Sustainability Program, Environmental Programs Department. http://ehs.mit.edu/site/sites/default/files/files/sustain_impact.pdf (accessed February 8, 2018).

Brophy, Sarah S, and Elizabeth Wylie. The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2008. Print.

White, Michael, Bischoff, Judith J., Stavroudis, Chris, and Goldberg, Lisa. “From Cradle to Grave: Waste Management for Conservators.” American Institute for Conservation’s Health and Safety Wiki. http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Health_%26_Safety:_From_Cradle_to_Grave:_Waste_Management_for_Conservators (accessed February 8, 2018).

Sustainability Committee. “Sustainable Practices.” American Institute for Conservation’s Sustainable practices Wiki. http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Sustainable_Practices (accessed February 8, 2018).