Issue Two

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In our previous email, we discussed the intersectional movement for environmental justice and to create a more sustainable planet. In this issue we want to talk about upstream impact. One of the biggest frustrations around trying to act sustainably is that our instincts aren’t always right! “Environmental folklore,” as Leyla Acaroglu calls it in her brilliant Ted Talk, informs our decision making about what is better for the planet far more than quantitative measurements. This can be demoralizing; we are trying hard to do good, sometimes even sacrificing to do good, only to realize we are inadvertently not helping or worse, doing harm! However, tools and information that can help inform our decisions are available!

One of the major contributors to a product’s environmental impact comes from production, or the upstream impact. Creating new products, even “green” or reusable ones requires energy and materials; where and how the product was created impacts its environmental footprint. The best way to reduce upstream impact is to reduce and reuse. Remember those forgotten Rs from elementary school? They are actually the top of the hierarchy of because they are the most important.

For example, when we buy a reusable metal water bottle we must understand that a metal bottle has a much greater upstream impact than a single use plastic one. This does not mean we should continue using single use plastic with reckless abandon. Rather, we need to be conscientious about reusing our reusable items many times to make the upstream environment impact lower than what a single use plastic item would be. According to reporting by the New York Times “…if your stainless steel bottle takes the place of 50 plastic bottles, the climate is better off, and if it gets used 500 times, it beats plastic in all the environment-impact categories studied in a life cycle assessment.”

In the workplace, thinking about what cannot be used is a good way to start reducing upstream impact. Do I need to use nitrile gloves to protect my health, or can I just wash my hands after completing a task with a non-toxic material? Can this bit of used blotter serve another purpose such as catching glue or paint before I throw it away? Is this new piece of equipment necessary, or can I have my old equipment enhanced or repaired? Can I put pressure on my distributors to package the products I buy with less waste or take excess material back to reuse? Thinking like this can help you to reduce and reuse materials creating your own approximation at a circular economy. For an explanation of how a circular economy works on a larger scale, see this is an animated explanation. Individual impact may be small, but by pressuring politicians and companies to design products with a low upstream impact and that fit into a circular economy where “everything is healthy food for something else,” a more sustainable planet and economy can emerge.

Some concrete tools that can help us assess what materials have the most environmental impact are Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs). LCAs quantify the impact of different products from their creation to disposal (or cradle to grave). While very complicated to calculate an LCA, here is a simple explanation of how they work. In the cultural heritage sector, Sustainability Tools in Cultural Heritage (STiCH) has created an LCA library (funded by the FAIC and NEH). There are also Case Studies available which may be useful to consult. This is an invaluable tool in our tool belt of sustainable practice. Everyone should bookmark this page and consult it when devising treatments. This tool is, of course, just one measure in the complex decision-making conservators and preservation specialists must consider but will help us to make more informed choices about the materials we use and their impact on the environment. The Act Labels database, from My Green Lab, is another tool that can help us assess the environmental impact of common lab equipment.

Here are six lessons to keep in mind that the STiCH team shared with us:

  1. Design can reduce carbon impacts. For example, many foams are carbon intensive to produce. In climatized, foam-lined packing crates, foams can contribute up to 70% of the total impact. Alternative designs and materials can reduce these impacts significantly.
  2. Not all materials are created equal from a carbon perspective. Considering solvents, deionized water is approximately 5 times more carbon intensive than tap water on a per kg basis. Benzyl alcohol is 3 times more carbon intensive than ethanol. For many applications in conservation and preservation, low-carbon alternatives exist that have comparable (or better) efficacy and cost. This information can be considered alongside inherent chemical hazards such as inhalation or dermal toxicity. Many green solvent selection guides use LCA to provide environmental information.
  3. Location matters when it comes to the fuel mix for the electricity grid. Products and processes that rely on local utilities like electricity and water will have different life cycle emissions depending on location. Because of this, the climate benefits of changing temperature and humidity controls or investing in energy efficient lighting and storage equipment will be impacted by how clean the electricity grid is in your area.
  4. Products must be compared in terms of efficacy and durability. For example, certain formulations used in treatments might be carbon intensive to produce compared to alternatives, but last so much longer that their use results in major carbon emissions savings.
  5. Humans are part of the system. Sometimes, carbon emissions are driven by staff activities and not by physical materials. For example, carbon emissions of a loan were found to be dominated by the multiple courier air trips required.
  6. Environmental sustainability is more than carbon, so life cycle assessment considers multiple types of environmental impacts. An option that might have low carbon emissions could cause other types of damages, such as toxic solvents or ozone-depleting propellants and refrigerants.

Check out these interviews and webinars to learn more about upstream impact, LCAs, and reducing our carbon footprint:

  • LCA Webinar from Sustainability Tools in Cultural Heritage Preservation (STiCH) and FAIC

We hope to feature reader's questions in future newsletters. Already innovating in the realm of sustainability? Write to us or use the hashtag #SustainableAIC on social media to let us know what you're up to, or reach out to us with your sustainability questions or expertise at!

- AIC's Sustainability Committee

Leyla Acaroglu: Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore

Ted Talk by Leyla Acaroglu

Circular Economy: definition & examples

Video by Sustainability Illustrated

GCSE Chemistry - Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs)

by Cognito