STiCH LCA Tool & Library – Blog Pt. 1

Submitted: May 17, 2021

Justine Wuebold, Co-Director of Waste and Materials at Ki Culture
Research Associate for the UCLA/Getty Interdepartmental Program in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage

In mid-February, two info sessions were presented on the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Tool & Library. This project has been under development over the last four years. The objective is to provide an open source free platform for decision making of cultural heritage storage, transport, and conservation treatment materials. The library will include case studies comparing the carbon footprint and environmental impacts of composite objects such as transport crates, solvents, adhesives, and other packing materials that are regularly used in conservation. It takes into account the toxicity level, transport, and manufacturing emissions to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions of using the material. The potential for this tool is broad, providing the conservator a way to calculate and compare materials for their treatment plan from an environmental perspective and a health and safety perspective. This project has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the first year of this $350,000 Tier II grant is complete.

The first informational webinar was presented for the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) by leads on the StiCH (Sustainability Tools in Cultural Heritage Preservation) project, who worked to develop the much anticipated LCA Tool & Library. These webinars included Sarah Nunberg (objects conservator and Visiting Professor of Material Degradation from Pratt University), Matthew Eckelman (Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering from Northeastern University), Sarah Sanchez (PhD candidate of Civil and Environmental Engineering from Northeastern University), and Sarah Sutton (Principal at Sustainable Museums, Cultural Sector lead for America is All In, and Grants Manager for the Frankenthaler Climate Initiative).

Sarah Sutton opened the webinar by contextualizing the project within the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which work towards objectives such as reducing poverty, improving health, creating equity, and reducing climate change. Sutton explained that using tools and resources (such as Henry McGhie’s handbook on Museums & SDGs) promotes innovative infrastructure to help museums optimize their work, provides a healthy place for collections care workers, and fosters responsible consumption by choosing better materials. In museums, we want to provide the best care possible for our collections. Through individual actions we can focus on protecting both people and the planet, to meet the evolving professional expectations. Sarah Nunberg discussed how many of the materials used in collections care are highly refined and require high energy and raw material input to manufacture. Nunberg posed the challenge of how to change our choices and use different materials, without shifting the burden of environmental impact.

Matt Eckelman defined LCA as a quantitative modeling tool used to compute the system-wide resource inputs, environmental emissions and impacts of a product or service. The multi-criteria tool has been used since the late 1960s to calculate embodied energy of materials from the point of production to its eventual recycling and disposal, taking into account where the product comes from, where the raw material is harvested, and the various processes involved. Eckelman used the example of an art crate to explain the invisible upstream and downstream inputs involved in a composite housing. There are LCA databases available, which use Cradle to Gate calculations and studies to provide an average embodied energy and carbon footprint per unit of measure (ex. University of Bath Carbon and Energy). This tool is similarly based on Excel tables, which are currently populated with 2,000 discrete entries. Eckelman goes in-depth about the goal and scope of performing a Life Cycle Assessment, to explain how the case studies are structured.

Nunberg explained that these case studies have been developed by Eric O’Toole who has worked with graduate students to build a library of 15 case studies. They are organized by category, such as Treatment, Environment Management, Building, and Gloves. Under the Treatment category, case studies include Consolidants vs. Resins, Animal vs. Plant-based adhesives, different rigid gels, and dry cleaning methods. These case studies will be expanded to include the methods of studies, the results in graph format, along with providing a space for discussion and potential solutions. The next project is to include a case study on Transport Crates (in use for 72 hours or less), which would look at the various component materials from the outside in. For instance, the shell could be made of wood or fiberglass, the interior would consist of some vibration absorbing material such as foam, and the wrapping around the object would include LDPE or tissue. In the future, we could compare alternative materials which are currently being researched for compatibility.

Sarah Sanchez discussed the Cradle to Gate method, which encompasses energy and material inputs from manufacturing phases, and excludes the ‘use phase’ and the ‘end of life phase’. For the case study of the Transport Crate, we can only compare scenarios on the same basis. As an example, the standard functional units being used for a two-dimensional object crate would be a 52” x 52” x 13” crate, and a three-dimensional object crate would be 40” x 30” x 30”. The case study would look at results per trip. Sanchez explained that based on transport graph results, designing crates with a longer lifespan reduces impact per trip. A reusable crate still has a low impact, but using a more durable crate means it’s heavier. One factor of climatized crates is that they require a higher quantity and quality of foam. The team would like to assess how to create a more sustainable option for standard wooden crates.

Nunberg added to the discussion of object transportation by highlighting that the ultimate goal is to house objects safely for the duration of transport, reducing vibrations and preventing breakage. We should consider what the object is being transported for, and how we can properly pack objects to minimize interactions, using alternative materials such as mycelium foam. Perhaps for limited duration transport, sustainable alternatives for crates could include wood made from wheat or rice, and using soy-based adhesives. Nunberg then referenced a project at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA); involving the conservation of a sandstone Romanesque Arch while making educated material choices for consolidation treatment, comparing between Silane and Acryloid B-72. Since the architecture was on public display, this study involved taking into account the health of the public and the conservator. In using large quantities of consolidant, the LCA tool can be used to compare factors such as solvent toxicity and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The STiCH team will be expanding on this tool, and many other case studies over the next several months. They are working on material comparisons such as Animal and Plant-based Aqueous Adhesive Systems, Base Materials (like rigid gels), Types of Cold Storage, Historic Window Assemblies, and Backing Boards for Paintings.

Sustainable Tools for Cultural Preservation: