Sustainability During a London Lockdown

Submitted: June 7th, 2021

Talia Weiss, SAP Social Media Manager
MSc Conservation for Archaeology and Museums at UCL

When I began pursuing a career in conservation, I worked as a conservation technician for a company in Washington, DC. During many onsite projects, I quickly realized how wasteful the field of conservation can be. Due to the nature of the field, the chemicals used and many other hazardous materials, it is understandable why so many of our supplies are single-use. However, it was always at the forefront of my mind to try to recognize where we can make small changes to our everyday practice in order to reduce our carbon footprint. I knew there were some areas that were unavoidable, but there were many aspects of conservation that I felt alternative materials, habits and techniques could be applied for greener conservation.

During the second year of my Masters in Conservation at University College London, I began my time as a student ambassador for Sustainability in Conservation during the pandemic. This came with its own set of challenges, the biggest being that I didn’t have access to my university or lab space during the start of my SAP time. With the theme of ‘water’ in mind, I knew I would have to think outside of just our lab to implement the various sustainable practice challenges I was given. Despite the disruptive year due to the Coronavirus, there were three challenges I was able to execute in a manner I was quite proud of.

At the start of my SAP year, all the UCL MSc conservation students were dispersed around the world. This was especially challenging for the MSc first years because they immediately had no access to the lab and various conservation training tutorials and materials. Therefore, small material packages were sent home to the few students in the first-year class. With these kits, I created a ‘Sustainability in Conservation at Home’. This packet included many tips and tricks for students at home to consider while executing conservation treatments, as well as links to numerous helpful resources on being sustainable both at home and in the lab. Many of these tips fit into our ‘Squeaky Clean’ challenge for the year. Below are a few examples of the tips & tricks I included:

o Re-use old phone cases as trays for small object work and organizing all tools into one place!

o Collect glass jars! Any glass jar can be used to hold your supplies, used cotton, active adhesives and so on. Find any jars you may have laying around your house, clean them thoroughly and use them for all lab needs. Also, it can be useful to buy objects in glass jars over single-use plastics when doing your weekly food shop.

o Re-use your gloves!! One of the largest single-use wastes is our GLOVES. If your gloves are only used for some dry cleaning or handling, don’t get rid of them!

– Use them as many times as you can until they are truly soiled or covered in paint or adhesives. Once they are more soiled, they can be washed and then used as sandbags for curing or holding objects! Much more eco-conscious than single-use plastic baggies.

– Re-use old nitrile gloves to prevent smudging during touch-ups. If you’re working on a delicate surface, you can cut the fingers off your used nitrile gloves to protect your palm from smudging a surface.

– DO NOT reuse your nitrile gloves if they were touching surfaces or working with chemicals that leave toxic and hazardous residues. This includes pesticides, dyes, hazardous pigments, heavy metals and hazardous solvents.

The last point on my tips and tricks page fit nicely into the first challenge that I was able to execute physically in the lab, once lockdown measures were slightly lifted. Following the theme of ‘Materials and Waste…Wait, What?’ challenge, I asked everyone in the lab to collect all lightly used nitrile gloves and give them to me. Using this stockpile of lightly soiled gloves, I repurposed them into sandbags for treatment weights. This was a creative way to repurpose our gloves that were too soiled for continued use, but not soiled enough for the bin. All our gloves from the lab get incinerated, so repurposing lightly used gloves reduced the amounts that were necessary to incinerate, which in turn reduced the quantity of fuel used and gasses that came out of incinerating soiled nitrile. In addition, this limited the amount of plastic sample bags repurposed as sandbags. I made a time-lapse video of me making glove sandbags, which can be found on the SIC instagram page, below!

Circling back to my initial observations about conservation being not as ‘green’ a field as it could be, I began to think critically about our plastic consumption. I took this as an opportunity to continue with the ‘Materials and Waster…Wait, What?’ challenge in a different capacity. Through this understanding and my position as UCL’s SAP, I began to work with BioViron, a company that produces bio-degradable packing materials. I began communicating with BioViron as well as other art industries to discuss the possibility of using these bio-degradable alternative materials for daily lab use, loan packaging, as well as short term storage solutions. I was given some samples of various materials from BioViron for testing. Going forward, I will be conducting Oddy tests, accelerated aging tests and chemical/solvent spot testing to understand how these materials might react to various applications in an art/museum/conservation context. If these tests prove the viability of these products within our field, they could provide a monumental change to our daily single-use plastic waste. I am so excited that SIC and the SAP internship allow me to pursue opportunities such as this, and I cannot wait to see where my sustainability journey goes from here.