Green Task Force Survey Summary Report

Presented at the Issue Session of AIC's 37th Annual Meeting by Patricia Silence, Chair
May 21, 2009, Los Angeles, CA

There is no denying that a measure of sustainability must now be incorporated into our conservation endeavors. Given financial and time pressures, habit, and evolving opinions regarding tolerable conditions for collections, conservators must consider not only the interaction of materials and environment to the art and artifacts we treat, but also the production, use, and disposal of materials employed in our work.  We must educate ourselves and become aware of our contribution to pollution and waste, and implement more sustainable practices.

In August 2008 AIC established the Green Task Force to evaluate US conservators’ current awareness of sustainability and how we are working towards more appropriate practices in museums and private businesses. We also aim to evaluate what you and the institutions you are associated with can and should do towards the worldwide goal of environmental sustainability. 

Our charge is to “investigate implementing Green practices for the AIC parent organization and encourage Green practices for the conservation profession”. We have two years to complete this study. Our team consists of conservators and one scientist, working in government and private institutions, as well as in private practice. Most of the conservation specialties recognized in the US are represented in this group. You can find a list of who we are on our Task Force web page.

The information that follows is derived from our first step: a survey sent out to the membership via Survey Monkey. The goal of the survey was to evaluate US conservator’s current awareness of this topic through 24 questions. Submissions were completed in November of 2008. 548 members started the survey, and 475 completed it, out of a total membership of over 3500. Some generalizations from this survey are reported here.

Who Responded?

  • Over 75% of those who participated are staff conservators
  • Almost 13% are interns or fellows
  • Just under 10% are administrators, with a few curators and registrars thrown in for good measure

These individuals work in government agencies, historic sites, and academia. Most respondents indicated that they worked in museums, though many worked in private studios (the 2nd largest group) as well as libraries (the 3rd largest group).  All specialty groups were represented, with the majority of respondents from book and paper or objects.

Geographically, AIC members are found all over the world, primarily in the US, with a heavy concentration in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of the United States.  Respondents to the survey reflected this. Given that our members are so widely scattered, we must consider that a wide range of government support/ encouragement/ discouragement, as well as access to services, are factors in how people approach and are able to implement “going green.”

Level of Green Commitment

  • We found that over 50% of our respondents are very committed to adopting greener practices.
  • About 25% described their workplace as very committed
  • Over 50% described their workplace as somewhat committed
  • 20% described their workplace as “not very” or “not” committed

Current Green Practices

We asked if respondents’ workplaces have incorporated or considered incorporating green practices. The big winner in this category was recycling – over 87% participate in this activity, including active redistribution of equipment and supplies within and outside their institutions. This is somewhat cost driven, as waste reduction and saving money go hand in hand.

After recycling, institutions have taken measures to reduce energy consumption. Rising fuel costs inspired much of this activity and continuing economic pressures give many facilities more than one good reason to reduce energy consumption. We asked about lighting, and found that over 55% of conservator’s workplaces still use incandescent lighting. Compact fluorescent and T8 tube fluorescents are on the rise in use, as are LEDs in exhibit situations.

Examples of Wasteful or Environmentally Damaging Practices

We asked our members if they feel that certain aspects of their employment are wasteful or potentially environmentally damaging.  Over 60% responded, ‘yes’. Of these, 87% gave examples. Concerns, in order of frequency (highest to lowest) were:  

  • Solvent, chemical and or hazardous materials use and disposal.
  • Material waste, including wood, paper, plastic and foam products.
  • Waste resulting from exhibition and transit of objects, such as one time use of exhibit furniture or crates.
  • Paper consumption for office use and documentation.
  • Energy consumption related to maintaining environmental controls – HVAC in particular.
  • Use of less efficient or outmoded lights, and electrical or plumbing equipment.
  • Water consumption and related waste particularly associated with paper or textile conservation treatments and water purification systems.
  • Travel and transportation related to seeing clients and movement of collection materials for exhibition purposes.
  • Inadequate or no recycling facilities. Some questioned whether materials were actually getting recycled

Examples of “Greener” Products

We asked if our members had found products that are “greener” than those typically used in conservation. While the yes responses were few (14%), they do cross over into multiple categories, and make a good start for our next phase: recommending “best practices”. Some of these products were described as follows:

  • water based systems, or natural products
  • less toxic solvents or paints
  • recycled or re-purposed products, equipment, furniture and tools
  • less toxic packing material
  • lighting: better bulbs, utilizing natural light, or bouncing light for more impact
  • organic cotton rags and towels
  • pest management systems that rely on less chemical use

Personal Steps Taken to Reduce Waste and Environmental Impact

The survey asked if these conservators had developed procedures that reduce use, emissions or waste, and included other questions in our survey particular to re-use and recycling of materials. It is clear that many of the steps taken toward improved sustainability are personal impact steps (such as composting food scraps) that are carried over to the workplace. Descriptions of the following practices were received:

  • Evaluation of environmental impact, and only perform treatments if necessary
  • Reduction of power use, by means of more efficient equipment, timers/motion sensors, cutting off “vampire” equipment, modifying or segregating climate controlled areas
  • Use of renewable energy such as solar or wind power
  • Reduction of water use, or reusing graywater for cleaning brushes, rinses, office plants or outdoor landscaping
  • Reduction and sometimes re-distillation of solvents
  • Work in renovated buildings or employ environmentally friendly building materials.
  • Creating and archiving electronic documents and records
  • Reuse of materials, from scrap paper, mat board and blotter, to packing peanuts, Tyvek, and Reemay both within the lab and to share with others. One downside was finding storage for all the scraps
  • Using washable materials such as towels or flannel to replace disposable paper towels or blotters, and glass containers to replace plastic
  • Driving less and walking or biking when possible
  • With regard to particular to AIC practices the only publication that the majority of respondents preferred to get in hard copy is the journal, JAIC
  • With regard to Specialty Group publications, it is no surprise that the Book and Paper group still has a majority that prefers hard copies

Waste & Ventilation

What about disposal, particularly of hazardous waste? About 75% employ a means of regulated hazmat disposal, either contracting directly with a specialist contract company, including it with their larger facility, or via a community based program.  The others let it evaporate, put it in the regular trash, or weren’t sure how to properly dispose of waste.

We find that a small number of respondents use no ventilation system.  A large number use multiple sources (HVAC, trunks, fans, etc.).  Fume hoods and trunks are the most commonly employed type of ventilation.

Future work for the AIC Green Task Force

The AIC Green Task Force needs to know what direction to take. To this end, we asked what barriers are to Going Green. 75% cited their administration or facilities. Cost, habit, and the perception that environmental impact was a necessary evil were all cited, as was lack of time and information. 

It is the latter, of course, information, that we are charged with providing. We will continue our research now that we have some idea of the state of the profession. Those who took the time to participate in our survey offered us many good suggestions, and we find that the issues that members are seeking more information about are consistent with the practices described earlier as “most damaging”. In general, it’s clear that people are interested in:

  1. minimizing waste (materials and energy)
  2. less toxic chemical and material alternatives
  3. re-evaluating the necessity of climate/RH controls

Many see an urgent need for a “best practices” guide for conservators.

We find a fair amount of enthusiasm for workshops and webinars on the topic. The AIC website will be the central location for Green ideas and advice.  Reviews of meetings, papers and links will be posted. Questions, comments, and most importantly suggestions regarding sustainability and conservation can be sent to green@conservation-us.org.

This report was presented on behalf of AIC at the Going Green Conference held at the British Museum late last month. The fact that we are doing this work was well received. It was reassuring to find that we are not alone in our insecurities that we aren’t doing enough. The GTF is forging connections with conservators throughout the world, as well as colleagues in other professions in order to pull together the best information possible. The AAM Green Professional Interest Committee, which met last on May 1 also welcomes input as they address broader issues that concern museums. 

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