Sustainability in Practice
Updated: Apr 2
What state will I leave the world in once I have left? Will I have contributed immensely to plastics floating in the ocean, forests cut, and gaping holes left in the earth? Due to the globalization of commerce and capitalism, it's often difficult to see and fully understand the impact our actions have on the world around us.
I'll be the first to admit that I am not perfect in this regard - personally or professionally. I've used too many disposable takeaway cups, too many plastic bottles, thrown out too many still-usable objects. I've used glazes with harmful materials whose origins and mining process I know nothing about. However, I also compost and grow some of my own vegetables and fruit. I buy all of my materials for my work in New Zealand. I'm always trying to do better.
Unfortunately, there is no true "perfect" way to be sustainable as an individual. As individuals, we are members of a larger society and to remove oneself from that mechanism is nigh impossible. Even amidst worldwide lockdowns and a severe drop in the use of fossil fuels as people stay home, there has only been, at most, a 6% decrease in carbon emissions. This highlights findings from previous years that just 100 companies are the source of about 70% of the entire world's carbon emissions. These statistics can really make you feel like there isn't anything you can do as an individual.
But that's not entirely true, is it? Because as members of our society, we can push society to change. It starts with smaller steps at an individual level and builds from there. I can make sure to bring my keep-cup with me when I go out. I can wash and reuse plastic containers at home. I can grow more vegetables and raise my own chickens.
From there, we take on sustainability on the professional level. My business is very small - it's just me in my garage - but I can still enact sustainable practices where I can.
For my ceramic work, I recycle all of my extra clay. When making, there is always some excess water, slip, and chunks of clay from throwing and trimming. I have large buckets for each type of clay I use where I collect these bits, cover them with water, and then let dry on a plaster slab. I can then wedge it all back into a usable form of clay. Not only is this economical for me on a personal level (fresh clay ain't cheap!) but it saves on needing fresh clay dug, processed, packaged, and shipped down to my corner of New Zealand.
As with any art, there are always pieces that don't go according to plan. I try to chuck out as little of these "wasters" as possible. I save them up and use them in ways I might not have originally planned - a mug with a bad handle or a glaze that looks weird on the inside or a crack in it might later become a plant pot. A wobbly plate might become a paint palette. I've also donated quite a bit of my wasters to mosaicists who can use even cracked and broken ceramics to make new art.
My candles are probably the most sustainable part of my business. I use 100% soy wax instead of a blend that uses paraffin (which is usually made from petroleum). I also wash out used candle jars for reuse and encourage my customers to do the same (I'll be making a post dedicated to that soon).
As I said, there's always more I could be doing and I am always learning. One thing I have recently learned about is the University of Oregon's ceramics department's use of clay and glaze waste. They save up waste from glaze and clay water runoff and turn it into paver bricks. A system like this might be something I attempt in my own studio (I don't have running water in my garage, but I sure do have a lot of buckets, so this system seems doable).