The Ceramic Industry: Is a Little Green Better Than None at All?

pottery

It wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, in fact it threw me. And when I finally landed it was clear I had my next topic for EcoSalon. Is ceramic an eco-friendly material?

Not really.

Ceramic is certainly not 100% eco-friendly, although it does boast an honest list of good intentions.

But first the aforementioned answer, which comes from Whitney Smith, a ceramic artist on Etsy. I asked her about the eco-friendliness of her work. Here’s what she said:

Hi Kim, I wouldn’t consider my process eco-friendly. Pottery production uses a lot of energy, and many of the ingredients in glazes and the clay body itself are toxic and cancer-causing in their raw form, and are mined from the earth. I take steps to reduce harm to the environment and myself and employees in my relatively low-production studio, but as a general rule it is impossible to make eco-friendly pottery, though I have seen people make that claim. As far as energy usage, I know some people have employed solar panels to reduce usage, but kilns use so much energy that solar panels are a minor offset at best.  Wood burning and gas fired kilns pollute the air. I know PG&E, my energy provider, claims that over 50% of the energy provided to Northern Californians is wind energy, but who knows? Thanks for asking!  Whitney

I’ve heard the term “eco-friendly ceramics” tossed around by at least a few of the artisans whose work we’ve featured here at EcoSalon. (Perch! and Heath Ceramics, to name just two.) What do they mean and how can they claim eco, while Smith speaks of the polluting process and a serious footprint?

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Needless to say, I was stumped. I wanted to reply with, “But, but, but”¦other people say their ceramics are eco?” Instead I bit my tongue and hit up Google.

It took me just under 5 minutes to find an environmentally friendly ceramic memo board and this ceramic teapot made with “sustainable materials.” Really?

Clay is an organic substance, for crying out loud. It comes straight from the earth, but as I’ve learned, this doesn’t mean it’s anything near green. Can any object made of clay, baked at degrees in the realm of the thousands ever be considered remotely green?

Perhaps.

For instance, what if non-toxic, low-impact glazes are used? What if the artist’s studio is footprint-free? And what if there’s a type of clay (there is) that only requires one fire in the kiln rather than two?

That, we can fairly say, is progress. Perfection? Does it really matter, as long as there’s an authentic and consistent path toward better, cleaner, safer?

Upon further investigation, I found this post by Laura Zindle, an artist based in Vermont. She states – emphatically, I might add – that her own work is not even the lightest shade of green and further, she’s infuriated that that others are making such preposterous claims.

Zindle has done some of her own research, asking her most knowledgeable colleagues to comment. Their thoughts show candor and passion about the art of ceramics, their own green leanings and how difficult it is to make ceramics 100% sustainable.

What most of them do agree on is the importance of staying informed and educating oneself about the options. The problem, which seems to be a common thread through any and all movements working toward sustainability, is that changes cost money.

John Hull, one of Zindle’s colleagues and a “lifelong educator and potter,” responds to her inquiry with the pragmatic suggestion that “being more green is better than less green.”

You and I work at home. We don’t drive to work using fuel…that’s green.
Your products are functional and don’t get thrown away…that’s green.
When they get broken and are disposed of, they don’t have a negative environmental impact…that’s green.
Your construction process doesn’t use energy (electric potter’s wheel, ram press, etc.)…that’s green.
You fire to a relatively low temp in an efficient kiln emitting no harmful gases (as in reduction)…that’s green.
Your kilns help heat the house and work space…that’s green”¦.and on and on,
BUT…energy use, mining and transporting of materials and all that is a question.

Actually, most of the ceramic artists I have researched claim some level of lessened environmental impact, ranging from total eco-friendliness to simply using non-toxic glazes. For example, Steve Harrison and Janine King have lived and worked green in Australia for years. Davistudio, Emily Murphy and, of course Amy Adams and Perch! are also on the path.

Zindle’s website now claims her work is “hand built and slip cast with low fire white earthenware and glazed with non-toxic low fire glazes”. Even a cynic can see the light.

There’s plenty of greenwashing going around, and the world of ceramics is hardly unique in this. A consistent definition of what it means to be green in ceramics needs to be established.  That being said, an honest dialogue is occurring within the ceramics community, which is clearly a move in the right, green direction.

Unquestionably, ceramic is better than plastic. Ceramics are also handmade, and therefore tend to be high in quality. Ceramics are recyclable and artists like Sarah Cihat prefer to use the old and make something new. Vintage ceramics from companies like Bauer are collectibles and are very functional. Personally, I’d rather have Bauer than anything new from Neiman’s.

But I still would love a Whitney Smith cake stand (second image).

Main image: lepiaf.geo

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13 comments

  1. I make the claim that my work is sustainably handmade. My inspiration for this was a trip I made to Buffalo China Co. The existing ceramic manufacturers who produce scads of ceramic dishware etc are huge. Large scale 24/7 kilns that eat up enormous amounts of natural gas and electricity create enormous waste. Literally tons of ware shipped world wide, pure excess. The difference between a large scale ceramic factory and studio potter is mind boggling on a eco scale. Nothing is perfect, but sustainability is a path, a journey to living on the planet with better practices. Large scale industry is the culprit. Not studio potters. Studio potters also contribute in innumerable ways to local economies, another essential aspect of sustainability.

    Our obsession with perfection is a left over from the industrial revolution. Progress not perfection is the moniker. Defending the claim is what people are shying away from. Time to own that Small is indeed Beautiful.

  2. As a potter, I have to disagree with Whitney Smith. The materials used in pottery making are not necessarily toxic or cancer causing. Yes, you can use dangerous materials, but it’s not necessary.
    Toxic. Cancer-causing? Emotive words. Excessive consumption of water will kill you. Water is thus toxic. Lack of water will kill you too. Water is a life saving vital commodity. Sunlight? Carcinogenic. Of course, we could spend our lives in pitch-dark. But sunlight is vital to us too. Without it our planet would freeze and there would be no living organisms.
    Most pottery is absolutely non toxic.
    Mary Anne Davis’ words also make little sense. The larger kilns used as continuous process kilns are dramatically more efficient than the small intermittent kilns used by studio potters. Big business, no matter how much we hate to say it, is very motivated to seek energy and materials efficiency.
    Small is NOT beautiful in terms of eco-efficiency in pottery. The ratio of ware heated to kiln materials heated gets poorer the smaller the kiln.
    I have worked at studio level for mant years, I’ve built and fired a lot of kilns, and I’ve also worked in industrial ceramics. One industrial place I worked had such an efficient heat recovery system that we had NO space heating or water heating costs in any of the buildings, and we also exported heat to the adjacent hospital and old people’s home. Heat beyond that was used to warm the soil in grow-tunnels and grow tomatoes and other crops. This in a place where winter temperatures are minus 35 degrees celsius for long periods.
    The most persuasive argument for pottery being green is its longevity.
    I drunk beer from seventeenth century tankards, and eaten my cornflakes out of 2000 year old roman samian ware bowls. If we divide the amount of energy used to produce a Samian Ware bowl, by 2000, its yearly green footprint beats almost any other product I can think of.

  3. I appreciate her honesty, even though it is clearly a contentious topic among potters!

  4. I fall on the pragmatic side of the argument when it comes to consumer products. While perfection is desired, even some progress is better than none in my opinion.

  5. P.S. Although I do believe it’s essential that companies/designers/artisans be perfectly transparent about just how green their products are so customers can decide themselves if the goods meet their eco standards or not.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this article – and the comments, too.

  7. lynn peterson · · Reply

    While working toward more ‘green’ ceramic production in my own studio, found it difficult/impossible to get infor about the white lowfire clay I use and what’s entailed in its manufacture. Same for low fire glazes.

    I do know older ceramics like Bauer, those lovely strong oranges and yellows not only contain lead but uranium. A geiger counter will activate when near them. Of course, so will smoke alarms, but that’s another story….

    Older ceramics with wear or hairline cracks on glaze surface may also leach lead when lemon juice or salad dressings are served on those plates.
    My favorite old vintage ironstone tests lead positive so I’ve given up using them for food.

  8. kristina · · Reply

    I am not on the “green” bandwagon at all. I love my cone 10 gas fired pieces. You work with the earth and in the end it turns back into the earth, and that isn’t good enough. The one aspect in a multi step process is the big concern. Just a question is it a bit redundant to bring cars on a posting about art making.

    Also annoyed about the arguments where people bring in driving their car as part of the art making process, really, do you drive to the grocery store to buy food and call that green too because you are using recyclable bags? I live in California, a few years back we were in a power crisis, so is that why here and now we should supposedly be thinking green, but it was just 50 years ago there were more than 3 h-bombs dropped on the planet so now we care? There are other art forms that ingest more energy than a gas kiln. (molten glass production)

  9. Well i have been working in Ceramic Industry for awhile here in Portugal.

    The factory where i work actually a few years ago invested on Spectometer of Light Absorption to check on Lead and cadmium on our wares.

    We have two body clays… the “regular” earthenware, which the flux(?) is Calcium Carbonate, so its has a porosity of 14 %, LOI 11% and another body clay, that considering our temeperatures, it’s still earthenware, though the flux is feldspar, higher mechanical strenght, LOI 5 % and a slightly lower porosity than the calcium carbonte one.

    All this to say i am familiar to the lead and cadmium limits specially in USA……and particular in California’s DA Proposition 69, which in my opinion are an exageration without the chemical/health study to really back it up those values.

    We (mostly all ceramics in Portugal that do tableware) don’t use Lead glazes anymore….only on decoration or underglaze. We actually had Wedgwood as clients like 15 years ago, and they pretty much made us jump to a more “green”.

    * We have the Continuous Tunnel Kiln (max temperature is 1050 ºC or 1922 F) works on natural gas.

    * As already stated our opaque and transparent glazes don’t have Lead at all.

    * We use stable pigments…the raw oxides are seldom used…the only one used is perhaps Iron Oxide red, Cobalt oxide…..and its rare.

    *We, by portuguese law, must have a Water residual treatment station, the residue that comes out goes to a cement factory (along with the old plaster molds)….they use it on their cements formula. Unfortunatly the residue has glazes and clay mixed….and the experiences to use it on the body clay werent successful.

    * The so called EcoDesign. Our Designer pretty much gives the same dimension to the wares: for example, you may have 2 different clients which their wares of course have different designs BUT the dimension is the same…both clients, the big plate is 32 cms diameter,,,,and desert plate is for example 12 cms diameter. Why?. Packing! That way the boxes will also be around the same size…and can be re-used on the several different clients…Thus making us buy less boxes.

    *and a lot more………

  10. How about a listing of “green” pottery supplies that potters have tried and liked? My dad has started doing pottery and turned his garage into a studio. I’d like for him to know about safer and greener products to use in his pottery studio. I’ve had a bit of trouble finding good information by using search engines. Thanks.

  11. Melissa: Your father may use clay he digs out of the ground. It’s available all around the world. He could make glazes out of wood-ash and clay. That’s about as eco-friendly as pottery can be.

    Higher fired (stoneware and porcelain) pottery tends to use less-toxic glaze materials. Bright colours at earthenware temperatures,such as red yellow and orange tend to use toxic compounds.

    Wood-fired kilns are carbon-neutral, whereas electric or gas kilns tend to be fired by fossil fuels.

  12. I think what Whitney was expressing was the fact that most chemicals used in ceramics are “cancer causing” BEFORE they are fired…raw form.

    I think there is blur between “eco friendly” and “human friendly”. Eco friendly would be to pollute the environment, for example, when you fire ANY ceramic piece, it’s polluting the air, toxic fumes are released from wares whether you dig the clay up in your backyard or not. The components of clay change when heated at a high temperature and create fumes…BUT the same piece, by the time it’s fired, may be ‘human friendly’ and non-toxic. So which is it? It falls into both categories with varying degrees of toxicity on either side.

  13. I have to respond to Tammy’s comment, because it is absolutely incorrect.

    “I think what Whitney was expressing was the fact that most chemicals used in ceramics are “cancer causing” BEFORE they are fired”¦raw form. ”
    This is just not the case.
    To suggest it is irresponsible.
    Whereas it’s undeniable that nutmegs and almonds are toxic. As are red beans and potatoes, if improperly treated. We can kill ourselves by overdosing on coffee.

    We have to get this into perspective. The basic materials of ceramics are found in our everyday surroundings, humans have been firing clay for at least eighteen thousand years.
    We don’t need to use particularly toxic, reactive, carcinigenic materials to make pots, but if we choose to, then we can use POTENTIALLY dangerous materials in safe ways.
    As for fumes from firing clay, well, sure, the fuel used to fire the clay may cause fumes that are harmful. But five minutes worth of the fumes released earlier this year by the Eyjafjallajokull eruption in Iceland would be more harmful than all the kilns fired in the last decade.

    If you want to see toxic, carcinogenic, environmentally damaging activities, you just can’t beat mother nature,

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