Artists Go Green

greenIn many areas of life, consumers may buy products that are less harmful to the environment than other brands, such as purchasing a hybrid automobile or bathroom tissues made from recycled paper or food from farms that practice “sustainable agriculture.”.
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Artists, too, strive to be good stewards of the environment through the purchases they make, but it is not easy as switching to a hybrid car or using recycled materials. Over the past 40 years, art supply manufacturers have focused most of their attention on producing products that are safer for artists – less lead (because of the association with neurological disorders) in white paint, for instance, or moving away from oil-based to water-soluble materials (in order to lessen the problems of fumes that may damage lungs, the liver and the central nervous system). Still, most artist-grade products continue to pose a danger to the environment. In the fine arts, being “green” largely means knowing how to dispose of hazardous materials in a safe manner.
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For instance, there are leftover materials – paint scrapings, inks, clay and stone chips, cleaning rags and solvents, lacquers, varnishes and patinas, cans and tubes of this and that. In the fine arts, the fight for a greener world often takes place right in the artist’s studio, specifically when it comes to taking out the trash.
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Perhaps, the first solution to the problem is not to have so much trash, which may mean not purchasing more of some product than one actually needs (so there is less to throw away), and a second is donating excess material to some nonprofit organization. Michael Skalka, conservation administrator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. who chairs the artists’ materials subcommittee at American Society for Testing and Materials, recommended contributing half-used paints and other materials to Habitat for Humanity, while Marc Fields, president of the New York City-based sculpture supply company The Compleat Sculptor, recommended donating hardened oil-based clays to public high schools and colleges: “What isn’t usable for professional artists may still be usable for school children,” adding that those clays can be reconditioned with oils to become flexible again. On the other hand, professional artist-grade materials may contain metals, such as lead or cadmium, which are prohibited from use in public schools, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission prohibits the use of adult art materials by children in grade 6 or under.
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Of course, donating excess materials only works on the margins of a larger problem, which is how to dispose of them safely, ensuring that potentially harmful ingredients in these products are not leached into the public water supply. What artists should do is not always clear, in part because there are different rules for hobbyists than for professional artists – hobbyists are assumed not to produce as much waste and are permitted to dispose of most of their art-making waste with household trash, while professionals are held to the standards of small businesses and educational institutions – and the fact that regulations for disposing of potentially hazardous wastes vary from one municipality to another. As a result, product manufacturers only recommend that buyers follow local waste treatment regulations – the Farmingdale, New Jersey-based clay manufacturer Chavant, for instance, stipulates that its clay should be disposed of “according to local ordinances” – and that requires artists to find out what the rules are.
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The federal Environmental Protection Agency sets certain mandated guidelines for hazardous waste disposal, and individual states may either adopt these rules wholesale or go beyond them. Each state has a governmental department of environmental protection that provides information for the closest recycling or transfer station relevant to the type of item needing to be disposed of, and an online source of help these sites is www.earth911.com. Towns and counties have landfills, administered by a local department of public works, which establish guidelines for types of trash and recyclable material that can be brought in, and they also are in charge of the collection of hazardous waste, including poisons, solvents and aerosols, which may be collected once a month or less frequently.
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Distinguishing between hobbyists and professionals is a fruitless exercise. Many retirees can be labeled as amateurs and hobbyists but work at their art 40 hours a week, while school art instructors are technically professionals but may be too busy with their teaching to produce much in their studios, and their sales may be small to nonexistent. Because of this, it makes most sense to view all hobbyists and professionals simply as artists who should all follow health- and environmentally-conscious studio practices when they produce trash. (It should be noted that the artwork done by school art instructors in school, and the manner in which wastes produced there are removed, does fall under the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently redefined the term higher education “laboratory” to include “art studio.”)
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Sculptors face a variety of health risks within their studios, particularly from dusts from dry clays and plasters that need to be mixed, as well as from certain types of stones that are carved, which are linked to respiratory illnesses, and from patina mixtures for metal sculpture that can contain acids. Clays, both water- and oil-based, plaster and stones may be placed in landfills. Digital Stone Project, a computer-aided stone carving foundry in Mercerville, New Jersey, “ships dumpsters of stone to a recycling center where it is used for road paving,” said Steve Flom, a former staff sculptor.
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Ceramic shells are not considered to be hazardous waste and may be recycled for construction projects or as filler for concrete.
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The polysulfides, silicones and urethanes that artists use to create molds for casting wax, resins, plaster, concrete and other materials are more hazardous in the liquid forms by which they are sold. However, one purchases them in two parts (Part A and Part B), which are to be mixed together, often in one-to-one ratios, which harden to form a solid. That solid foam, plastic or rubber may be taken directly to a landfill (the catalytic reactions generated by the combined liquids have already taken place). If a sculptor only has one part – perhaps, the other part spilled or is lost – he or she may purchase the other part separately (for use in making a mold or just to form a solid that can be thrown out) or turn it in during a hazardous waste disposal collection.
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Of greater concern are the liquids that sculptors may use, such as patinas, lacquers and varnishes, which are hazardous materials. However, they tend to be used in small amounts – for instance, one cup – that may be left outside to evaporate (more quickly in dry, warm environments than in more humid ones), at which point any remaining solids are inert and can be put in a landfill. For those who look to speed up the process, Marc Fields recommended pouring plaster into the liquid, “which will fix it, then dispose of it as solid waste.”
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Good things sometimes result from bad ones. An useful source of information for artists is an Environmental Protection Agency booklet titled “Environmental Health & Safety in the Arts: A guide for K-12, Colleges and Artisans,” which was prepared by Pratt Institute (www.epa.gov/Region2/children/k12/english/art-1of5.pdf) as part of a $300,000 settlement by the school with the EPA because of improper waste disposal practices.
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