Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Environmental Sustainability at Pate Ceramics

The information in this post was the start of the article "Clay Culture:  Greening a Studio" in the April, 2017 issue of Ceramics Monthly.  If you have any questions about modifying your own studio for sustainability, or would like some more detail about anything discussed there, please contact me.  I'd love to help!

Running a small business means the freedom to do it right.  After years of working in group spaces, one of the main reasons that I set up my own pottery studio was a desire to work in the most environmentally friendly manner possible.  With my studio layout, equipment, and working practices, I work towards energy efficiency, exclude hazardous materials from my studio, and reduce my waste stream to almost zero.  Here are some of the ways I run a green studio.

My kiln is maintained in tiptop condition.  Kilns draw a lot of electricity.  It's a big cost in the production of pottery in factories and home studios, as well as an environmental concern.  I shopped around for a second-hand kiln in good shape, then I added a double bottom for more insulation, and I keep my kiln well-tuned to minimize inefficiency.  I know the right time of day to run my kiln.  Yep, that makes a difference in how efficiently it runs too.  And I snuggle small items, like mugs, into the spaces between large bowls and platters, to be sure that I'm always running a full load.

Water use in the pottery studio is another place I can do my part for the environment.  Water is reused nearly infinitely before it goes down the drain.  The system I use also helps keep my drain from plugging up with clay, which is a frequent problem for potters.  I fill a bucket of water at the sink.  I use it to throw a day's worth of pots.  At the end of the day, that water is sludgy and brown with clay.  It is tipped into a giant tub and allowed to settle.  Clear water from the top of the settling tank is siphoned off and used to rinse spatulas and buckets and clay tools, keeping clay out of my sink drain.  Clear water from the tub is also used to sponge down shelves and the floor.  Fine particles of clay dust are a major hazard to your health, so daily cleaning is imperative, but a vacuum will just kick those particles back up into the air.  A bucket of water and a damp sponge are the way to go.  Finally, the water used to clean the floor goes back down the drain.  

The clay in the settling tub is also recycled.  It sinks to the bottom of the tub, mixed with the pounds of clay shavings from trimming pots, and with trace amounts of glaze chemicals from the rinsing of buckets and spatulas in the glaze lab.  I mix my glazes from scratch so I know exactly what goes into them:  mainly clay, just different types of clay than what I use to make the pots, also finely ground beach sand, and trace amounts of metallic oxides, the same types that make my clay brown rather than white.  The ratio of clay to glaze residue in the recycle tub is such that I can recycle my glaze waste right into the next batch of clay with no visible effect.  It is fired into the body of the pots, eliminating another waste stream.  Poof!*  The settling tub gets a good stir, and then the clay slop is laid out on a plaster wedging board to dry.  After about a day, the plaster has soaked up enough excess water that the clay can be used to throw more pots.

Whenever possible, I cut waste from my packaging and shipping process.  Most of my pottery is sold at fairs, festivals, and farmer's markets in the Boston area, or through local gift shops, eliminating the need for packaging.  I load my pots into my pickup truck and away I go.  When I do ship orders across the country, I re-use styrofoam packing peanuts.  The local gift shops I sell through save the extra peanuts from their UPS deliveries for me.  When I can't get enough peanuts that way, I pay extra to buy the bio-degradable kind.  Made from spun cornstarch, these break down in water, either in a customer's kitchen sink, or in the landfill.  They are also fun to play with.  Dampen one with a sponge, and it will stick to another one.  You can use them to build little sculptures and then slough them down in the sink.

My studio itself is pretty darn efficient, and I've been making it more so.  I work in the basement of my house, so I've cut my work commute from an hour each day, to zero.  That saves a lot of gas and CO2 emissions.  Because I'm in the basement, there is no need to air-condition the studio.  It's pleasantly cool all summer, and it stays above freezing during the winter, cutting the need for heat.  I do use a space heater during the coldest part of the year, but usually I'm fine if I just bundle up:  more energy savings.  A bit of time spent with my trusty caulk gun around the windows and door frames has also made a huge difference in the comfort level of the space in the winter for about $10.

When I first moved in, it was very dark down there.  I've since painted the walls white, which made a huge difference in the amount of light needed to work comfortably.  White reflects light.  Dark colors absorb.  I installed a french door out to the backyard to let in more light as well, and replaced all the incandescent bare-bulb light sockets in the ceiling with fluorescent shop lights, which give me MUCH more light, for about the same amount of electricity.

I have a personal dislike of the typical office park landscaping.  It's easy to maintain, but not very environmentally friendly.  Since I work out of my house, I am the landscaper.  I've done my part by stuffing the yard with flowers native to our part of Massachusetts that don't require watering, mowing, or fertilizing.  And it's not just pretty to look at, it's supporting a ton of wildlife!  Our yard is full of clouds of bees throughout the growing season.  Honey bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, bumble bees, assorted wasps and hornets... all happily pollinating away.  We have butterflies, dragonflies, lightning bugs, garden spiders, rabbits, short-tailed shrews, moles, field mice, goldfinches, orioles, downies, flickers, sharp-shinned hawks, screech owls, foxes, coyotes, fisher cats, raccoons, possums, skunks, salamanders, frogs...  some permanent residents, some wandering through.

If you can think of other thing I can do to green up my studio, let me know!

*A warning to new potters... recycling your glaze rinsings into the clay for your next batch of pottery only works if you have much more clay waste than glaze waste.  It works well for me, because I'm a production potter producing LOTS of clay waste, and I use same four glazes made from two base glazes all the time, and those glazes all have VERY small amounts of colorants, mainly iron oxide, and nothing particularly hazardous.  This will not work for group studios where you have little control over what sorts of glazes are being mixed, (you don't want to have someone adding lead to your clay recycle, yikes!), or for potters who like to constantly experiment with new glazes.  It will not work for potters who like to use special effects glazes with particularly unstable or toxic ingredients or which are super-saturated with oxides.  You can't mix a bunch of test glazes, decide you don't like them, and pour them into your clay recycle by the bucket-full, or your clay will vary too much from batch to batch, and potentially melt all over the kiln, or contain something that you don't want to handle without gloves.  Happy potting!  Maggie

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