Sustainable Material Use and Disposal

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Thinking about Sustainability and Material Use in Conservation[edit | edit source]

Subjecting a variety of traditionally used and sustainable materials to an Oddy Test which will identify the presence of volatile organic compounds through accelerated aging. Image created by Christian Hernandez.

One of the most tangible ways to include sustainability into your practice is by considering it when purchasing, using, and disposing of the materials you use. The life cycles of these materials start well before and extend far beyond the brief time they are in our hands, but the effects they have on our environment are concrete and can be irreversible. And considering our collective decisions are cumulatively significant, we must address sustainability with the materials we use, or choose not to use.

The information below is broad as there are an almost infinite number of materials used by the professionals across our field. A good rule of thumb is to know why you are using certain materials over other materials. Too often we use materials because that is what we were taught to use or because that is what is available. It is also difficult to certify a material as ‘’safe for use’’ or “museum quality” when there is no standard definition or agreed-upon understanding of what that means. But knowing the sustainable qualities of the available options, and making an informed decision is a good start.

A material can be sustainable in a variety of ways. There is no clear point at which a material becomes sustainable but after asking enough questions an answer will likely become clear. Some of the questions to ask are:

  • Was it made from a renewable resource? For example a quick growing plant or water-based as opposed to a slow growing tree or petroleum-based.
  • Was it made in a way that avoided the use of toxic materials, such as mercury?
  • Did a company locally make it, reducing its carbon footprint through transportation?
  • Does the company that makes or sells this product operate in a sustainable manner?
  • Can it be bought in sustainable quantities?
  • Is it recyclable by the recycling plants it would be sent to?
  • Can it be easily recycled in general? How much energy or resources is needed to recycle it?
  • Can I reuse it instead of disposing of?
  • Can someone else reuse it after I am no longer able to?
  • If disposed does it have a negative effect on the environment?
  • Does this product avoid using ozone-depleting substances?
  • Does this product have low volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions of pollutants into the environment it would be used in?
  • Does this product reduce pollution or waste from operations, for example by avoiding the need to be cleaned with solvents?
  • Does this product block the introduction, development, or spread of indoor contaminants? For example duct mastic blocks the entry of mold-laden air or insulation fibers into a duct system.
  • Does this product need to be replaced or updated less frequently than the alternative?

When it comes to purchasing, using, and disposing of solvents or chemicals, it is important to keep sustainability in mind as they can have very direct, tangible, and significant effects on the health of the people and environment around us.

Chemical compounds in the solvents we use become pollutants when they enter the environment through off-gassing, evaporation, or disposal, all of which have a potential adverse impact on our ecosystems. According to the EPA, the use of solvents contributes to our greenhouse gas emissions in the form of volatile organic compounds, usually hydrocarbons, and this is important to remember because in most cases your fume hood simply extracts the solvent from the lab and evaporates it into the atmosphere. While the definition of what a pollutant is has evolved as we learn more about our impact as humans on the environment, it is always recommended to err on the side of caution and actively purchase, use, and dispose of solvents and chemicals in the most sustainable way.

Like other materials, there is no clear point at which a chemical becomes sustainable but in addition to the questions above some of the other questions you can ask are:

  • How far removed from their petrochemical base are they?
  • In general the fewer processing steps in manufacturing a solvent, the less impact it likely has. Chemicals with more than 8 letters are usually worse offenders than those with shorter names, for example tetrahydrofuran has higher EHS and LCA scores than ethanol.
  • Is there a recent SDS available for this specific product? If so, what does it say?
  • Is it water-based or water-soluble? If so it is likely more sustainable in its production and disposal than ones that aren't.
  • How many times can it be used before it is considered spent?
  • Does it expire? If so can it be purchased in quantities and at prices that are sustainable and not wasteful?
  • How versatile is this chemical? Can multiple people in your lab or institution use it for multiple uses?
  • How is it disposed of? What are the effects on the people, plants, and animals it may come into contact with after disposal?

These questions, along with others, will help in your decision-making.

Note that even when we switch to more ‘natural’ substitutions (e.g. xanthan gum), it is often difficult to find, even in the SDS, exact toxicological, ecological, or disposal information. For this reason you may have to combine your education, your experience, your research, and those of your peers, to make a decision. Regardless of the final outcome or the material that is being used, it is important to continue to ask yourself and your colleagues, can what we are doing be done with the same results more sustainably?

Where to Begin: Finding Information About Specific Materials[edit | edit source]

There are many places to begin your search into finding out the sustainability of a product, material, or process. Below are some ideas and resources to start.
1. Look into whether the material has a certification, seal, or organization that promotes it as being sustainable. Look here for a list of these that the committee has gathered.
2. Check one or more of the following databases for further information. Note some are specific to different fields.

  • The Conservation & Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO) database for information relating to conservation-specific materials, specifically the Materials Database which is only one of several resources CAMEO moderates.
  • The Green Building Pages Green Product Search public web resource to see if the material is listed. Note that it is primarily useful for building and construction materials.
  • The Green Lab from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a database that provides information on alternatives to hazardous chemicals and processes and is searchable in four ways: Chemicals to Replace (ex: alternatives to carbon tetrachloride), Process to Replace (ex. flash chromatography alternative solvents or alternative processes), Alternative Chemical (ex. aqueous surfactants or acetone), or Alternative Process (ex. drying glassware).

3. Check if the product has one or more safety data sheets (SDS), material safety data sheets (MSDS), or product safety data sheet (PSDS) available. Widely known collectively as SDS, these documents are globally standardized in layout but can vary from source to source. When searching for SDSs, search exhaustively as one material may have several SDS sheets which together will provide the most thorough information. Also search under all possible names a material may be called and for the version of SDS provided by the distributor which you will purchase from. Also search for SDSs as recent as possible, ideally after 2012, which is when the U.S. adopted the 16 section SDS format. Within this format several sections relate to sustainability, including social sustainability or how they can affect the people using the material, are included. In terms of environmental sustainability the following sections are of interest:

SECTION 11: Toxicological information
11.1. Information on toxicological effects
SECTION 12: Ecological information
12.1. Toxicity
12.2. Persistence and degradability
12.3. Bioaccumulative potential
12.4. Mobility in soil
12.5. Results of PBT and vPvB assessment
12.6. Other adverse effects
SECTION 13: Disposal considerations
13.1. Waste treatment methods
SECTION 14: Transport information
14.5. Environmental hazards
14.6. Special precautions for user
SECTION 15: Regulatory information
15.1. Safety, health and environmental regulations/legislation specific for the substance or mixture

General Tips for Sustainable Material Use[edit | edit source]

Image from WikiMedia Commons, author Heatherawalls

The EPA Pollution Prevention Act suggests that we first consider reducing use. If use reduction is not an option, the next goal should be to minimize amounts of any material and to reuse any waste. If reuse is not possible, then recycling should be the final and last option. Pollution that cannot be prevented or recycled should be treated in an environmentally safe manner. (EPA Pollution Prevention Act, Revised December 31, 2002) [1]

Before undertaking a treatment that uses any resource, please consider ways to alter your technique to use fewer resources, to use a reusable resource, and to create less waste. Below are some helpful tips to consider:

  • Order only what you need.
  • Use only what you need.
  • Reuse what you can and find ways to switch to reusable materials.
  • Repurpose what you can.
  • Borrow/share/rent tools and equipment if you need them infrequently.
  • Repair tools and equipment before disposing and repurchasing.
  • Use more sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based or plastic products, and use products made with recycled material when possible.
  • Improve how you store materials to minimize waste, loss, or damage.
  • In the case of materials such as cardboards, foams, or Coroplast, store flat to prevent warping, store covered to prevent damage through exposure to light or dust, and store where they won't get damage from passersby or being used as a make-shift surface to rest objects on.
  • In the case of solvents and chemicals, improved storage may mean reducing spillage, spoilage, and loss through evaporation. Those that dry or evaporate with air would benefit from self-closing containers and storing in smaller containers for less overall exposure to air.
  • When cleaning tools and work surfaces, use products that are less toxic when disposed of. If a solvent is necessary consider diluted or used solvent rather than completely new solvent.
  • When cleaning anything, consider whether it needs to be cleaned as frequently or with as toxic a chemical. For example if a working surface is going to continue to get dirty immediately after cleaning, consider using water or diluted solvent as a frequent mid-treatment cleaning option and a harsher chemical post-treatment.

Additionally, when using solvents or chemicals, consider the following:

  • The National Archives Solvent Solver program uses the principles of Teas Fractional Solubility Parameters to help the user design a mixture of solvents that will have the same properties as a more toxic solvent. For example, mixtures of heptane, acetone and ethanol can be used to make toluene or THF substitutes. Note: this program will work with Windows 95 or later (including Windows 7), but is not Mac compatible.
  • Rather than relying on an easy but larger recipe each time you create a solvent or chemical mixture, figure out the measurements for a smaller batch and keep it easily accessible for the future.
  • Look into whether a local waste management company will recycle used solvents through distillation. It is also possible to purchase a machine and recycle the solvents yourself if your lab generates a sizable amount of solvent waste. Here are some companies that offer such products. [2] [3] (We do not know anyone who uses one, and would love to hear from you if you do. Please email us at

And use office paper thoughtfully. When possible buy paper products that have not been chlorine bleached. When possible don’t print unless absolutely necessary, print do it on both sides, on paper with recycled content, and with sustainable inks. Save waste paper for note-taking.

Reuse Materials[edit | edit source]

Biological and technical nutrients of Cradle to Cradle design.

Ask yourself if something can be reused before you drop it into the trashcan. Many materials employed in conservation can be reused, either by conservators or other professions. Consider the following reuse tips:

  • Check local material exchange networks to see if your materials can be reused by someone else.
  • Post on local museum and conservation list-serves any materials that can be used by others.
  • This is particularly helpful for tools, equipment, display cases, and crates.

Conservators can also reuse materials. Reusing a product instead of purchasing a new one from raw materials (even if the raw materials are recycled) saves resources and energy. Some examples you might consider not purchasing new include lumber, plumbing fixtures, period hardware, easels, furniture, shelving, and office equipment.

Material Use in Renovations[edit | edit source]

Conservators often advise on materials and systems during renovations, including but not limited to updates in the lab, exhibition, and collection spaces. Sustainable points to consider include:

  • Use flooring that requires fewer resources to clean. For example, carpet cleaning requires vacuums, water, and/or solvents.
  • Use flooring that can be replaced in pieces to avoid full-room replacement if an area is damaged or dirty.
  • Linoleum helps to control microbial growth because of the ongoing linoleic acid oxidation process.
  • Consider concrete flooring, which is easy to clean and can be dyed with pigments to give a finished appearance.
  • Include building components that reduce heating and cooling loads (insulation, building forms and windows).
  • Use controlled natural lighting when possible.
  • Use more sustainable lighting options.
  • Use low VOC paints and sealants.
  • Use “Track-off” systems (sticky pads) for entryways to remove pollutants from the shoes of people entering. This is good for the objects and minimizes the need for frequent cleaning.
  • Examine and modify how your HVAC system controls work spaces and storage spaces; ideally, they would be treated separately to minimize energy use.

Waste Management[edit | edit source]

When looking for information on waste disposal, a good place to start is the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Your state’s environmental agency provides local information about recycling facilities and waste disposal regulations. An internet search may additionally locate sites for local, municipal or citizen-based organizations with informative websites.

Recycling Materials[edit | edit source]


In the 2008 survey conducted by the SC [4], we found recycling to be the sustainable initiative that AIC members are most likely to participate in at work, with 87% of respondents indicating that their workplace participates in recycling. Bear in mind that not all materials can be recycled by the specific waste-management facility it will be sent to. Different waste management companies might prefer some materials be separated, or kept together; some may consider mixed recyclables as trash because they do not separate. Before undertaking any large recycling endeavors know what is within the means of your local waste management companies, and what you may have to outsource to manage specific recyclable waste.

Consider the following points when recycling materials used in conservation:

  • If you recycle nothing else, focus on metals. According to economists, metal is the most important thing to recycle due to the costs of mining raw metal ores and our ability to recoup the cost of recycled metals (with minimal energy) more than any other material, even glass.
  • Here’s how: In most locations (check with your local recycling center), steel and aluminum cans, aluminum baking trays and foil, large metal items, and empty aerosol cans without the nozzle can go straight into your home recycling bin. Flat lids and small metal bits need to be enclosed in a can by crimping the top so they don’t fall out and lost in sheets of paper. Think about all the scrap metal you can remove from artwork in a year, like paper clips, bent screws, nails, and framer’s points.
  • The process of extracting aluminum from bauxite ore is very energy intensive, while recycling aluminum uses approximately 95% less energy and can be recycled again and again without changing its properties. Most jurisdictions accept foil wrap, too.
  • Paper is also important to recycle. For every one ton of paper made from recycled paper, it saves up to 17 trees and uses 50% less water. [5]
  • Clean scrap polyethylene and other foams can be recycled. Contact your local recycling facility for more information. Ethafoam can be sent back to the manufacturer, SealedAir, for recycling.
  • Kimberly Clark's RightCycle program, in partnership with TerraCycle, recycles single-use Nitrile gloves and Tyvek garments. Contact the company for more information.
  • TerraCycle is an international company that takes many difficult-to recycle materials. Contact your local TerraCycle office for more information.
  • Paper is one of the largest components of solid waste in landfills. Make sure the paper you use has been used as many times as possible. Make sure to store large pieces of used but reusable, high-quality paper where they won’t get damaged or accidentally used as lower-quality paper (ex. for note-taking).
  • There are many companies that offer electronic, office, and lab equipment recycling programs. Some are done through large big-box stores while others are done through your local government's waste-management programs. The U.S. EPA has a list and map of Certified Electronics Recyclers across the U.S.
  • Institutions can partner with each other to gather recycled materials to send to specialized recycling plants, saving money and reducing waste.
  • Consider partnering with local organizations or be a drop-off point in your community for specialized recycling. For example if you are going to dispose of a large quantity of paint, offer to be a drop-off point for your neighborhood beforehand.

Hazardous Waste Management[edit | edit source]

Some of the waste that conservators produce is considered hazardous waste; therefore you are a generator of hazardous waste with some responsibility attached. As a generator you are responsible for the life of that hazardous material from the moment you use it to the moment it is disposed of in the correct manner.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) [6] defines hazardous waste [7] as being either ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic, summarized very briefly as:

  • Ignitable: a material that burns readily (applies to liquids with flash points below 60oC, oxidizers, a material that can cause spontaneous chemical change, or ignitable compressed gases)
  • Corrosive: an aqueous material with a pH below 2 or above 12.5
  • Reactive: a material that reacts violently or potentially explosive with water; generates toxic gases, vapors, or fumes in a quantity sufficient to present a danger to human health or the environment; is capable of detonation or explosion at standard temperatures and pressures, or subjected to a strong initiating source or if heated.
  • Toxic: a waste that contains one of a specified group of heavy metals, organic toxicants, and pesticides at a particular level (by EPA-approved methods).

According to the RCRA, there are three classes of hazardous waste generator:

  1. large-quantity generators (LQG) that generate greater than 1,000 kilograms of hazardous waste per month
  2. small-quantity generators (SQG) that generate between 100 and 1,000 kilograms of hazardous waste per month
  3. very-small-quantity generators or conditionally small-quantity generators (CESQG) that generate less than 100 kilograms of hazardous waste per month.

Most of us will fall into the 3rd category, so under Federal requirements we are generally not required to obtain an EPA generator identification number or provide a manifest when shipping hazardous waste HOWEVER it is of the greatest importance that you check your local regulations as several states have stricter rules.

If waste is improperly disposed of, it can lead to health, safety and legal issues as well as negatively impact the people, plants, animals, and ecosystems it interacts with after improper disposal. Most cities, states, and counties have specific waste disposal requirements so it is vitally important to contact your local officials to find out what the regulations are and what sort of record keeping you are responsible to maintain, then if necessary to find a certified chemical waste disposal company for your area. Sometimes partnering with a local college chemistry department can be helpful for an individual conservator or a small lab. If you or your lab produces enough hazardous waste you can contact companies such as The Environmental Quality Company [8] for more information.

Note that the AIC’s Health and Safety Committee has written the article 'From Cradle to Grave: Waste Management for Conservators' Compiled by the Health and Safety Committee which has extensively explored hazardous waste and conservation. And the Sustainability Committee, in partnership with the Health and Safety Committee, has also written the article 'Hazardous Waste: Where on Earth Should it Go?'.

Certification, Seals, Organizations[edit | edit source]

Note: The AIC Sustainability Committee does not endorse or promote the companies mentioned. Please feel free to contact us with updates and suggestions, as this list is meant only as an open resource.

There are many different organizations that promote certain products over others. When making purchasing decisions, it can be helpful to look for a product that has been certified in some way. Some of these certifications or their sources include:

  • LEED (U.S. Green Building Council, Leading in Energy and Environmental Design - buildings, building materials - International)
  • Energy Star (appliances, building products, heating and cooling, plumbing, electronics, and computers)
  • EcoLogo UL’s GREENGUARD and ECOLOGO® (office and household products)
  • Green Seal (office and household products)
  • MBDC Cradle to Cradle (building, household, and office products)
  • BREEAM (non-domestic buildings - European and International)
  • ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers)
  • ASHRAE Standard 189.1-2014 (Publication - ANSI/ASHRAE/IES/USGBC Standard 189.1-2014, Standard for the Design of High-Performance Green Buildings)
  • Green Globes ("Green Globes is an online assessment protocol, rating system, and guidance for green building design, operation and management. It is interactive, flexible and affordable, and provides market recognition of a building’s environmental attributes through third-party assessment." - Canada and U.S.
  • The US Environmental Protection Agency has a Sustainable Marketplace that includes a page on how to Identify Greener Products and Services broken down into the following categories: Buildings (construction, operations, and maintenance), Carpet, Cleaning, Electronics, Fleets, Food services, Insulation, Landscaping, Meetings and conferences, Paints and coatings, Paper, and Wood products.

Note that many of these companies work with each other and have programs that address buildings, how they operate, and the products within them simultaneously.

floatright LEED Certified Gold seal

Additional Resources[edit | edit source]

Evaluating the impact of an exhibition or loan on the environment can be complicated, however several tools are now available to assist.

In 2011, Simon Lambert received the ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) Student Conservator of the Year award for his development of methodology that estimates the environmental impact of museum loans, called the Carbon Footprint Calculator for Outgoing Loans (Review of and links to the research of Simon Lambert).

In 2007 the Museum for English Rural Life created the exhibition ‘’Going Green: Sustainability past, present and future’’, which “used the fascinating object and archive collections to put contemporary issues such as climate change, renewable energy, recycling, biodiversity and self-sufficiency in their historical context.” In addition to exploring the topic of sustainability the museum also created a Rural Museums Carbon Footprint Calculator, presented as a multi-page Excel spreadsheet for any museum to use to gauge their carbon footprint. (link at bottom of page)[9]

Former SC chair has also spearheaded a multi-phased life cycle assessment (LCA) project. See Life Cycle Assessment Project for more information about the project.

Exhibition Cases[edit | edit source]

Building a Better Exhibit Case, by the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits Central. Includes download of WAAC article: “Conservation Meets Sustainability: Recycling Wooden Exhibition Cases.” WAAC Newsletter, Volume 35, Number 2, May 2013.[10]