42nd Annual Meeting – Book and Paper, May 31, Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group

The theme of this year’s Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group was “Options for Sustainable Practice in Conservation”, which tasked speakers to examine how conservators could lessen the carbon footprint of conservation work. Speakers included Brian Baird, from Bridgeport National Bindery, Danielle Creech of ECS Conservation, Julie Newton from Emory University, and Marieka Kaye of the University of Michigan Libraries. The speaker line-up was notably diverse, in that it included speakers from commercial binderies as well as those from labs within academic libraries.
Brian Baird had some good points about why conservators and labs should focus more on reducing waste, rather than just relying on recycling, to lessen their carbon footprint. For instance, recycling some items, such as ink cartridges, doesn’t do much good – the cartridges are shipped to China, where they remove the last few drops of ink, and the plastic cartridges still end up in the landfills. His ultimate take-away lesson was that no recycling program can be as efficient or cost-effective as simply reducing consumption of materials.

Pile of books that can't be recycled for high-end paper waste, because they have print on them.
Slide from Brian Baird’s talk.

Danielle Creech spoke about the various iterations of ECS Conservation’s recycling program. Over the years, they’ve recycled everything from linotype and monotype waste, old equipment, old book covers, shrink-wrap packaging, and paper dust. They built a relationship with their County Solid Waste Management District, who helped partner them with a business-to-business recycling business called Quincy Recycling. With each iteration of their recycling program, ECS had to come up with creative solutions to reduce consumption as well as find ways to recycle various types of materials. Danielle made a very important point that recycling is NOT free, as it requires time and labor to train employees in the proper recycling procedures. She also mentioned that they have noticed some “recycling fatigue”, as employees constantly have to remember which of the 17 recycling barrels should be used for different kinds of waste.
Horse lying down in pile of paper dust bedding
Slide from Danielle Creech’s talk, showing a horse enjoying its new bed of paper dust, courtesy of her bindery’s recycling program.

Marieka Kaye outlined how both the library and her lab play a large part in promoting sustainability in the overall University of Michigan community, via the Library Green Team program. This program encompasses more than just recycling bins, by providing avenues for both staff and students to creatively reduce consumption as well as reuse materials within the library. For instance, their library staff intranet has a Craigslist-style office furniture swap listing, and the library sells reusable water bottles which can be used with the recently-installed water-bottle refill stations.  In the conservation lab, they replaced the incandescent bulbs in the overhead lights with energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs.
Julie Newton started her talk off with the statement that “a box of lab scraps is a hundred tiny art projects waiting to happen”, which will resonate with anyone who loves to collage or make other types of paper-based art. Through her vigorous efforts, Julie was able to extend the life of many materials before they went into the recycling bins. She noted that while conservators are usually very frugal with their materials, such as Japanese tissue, they tend to be less frugal with more plebian materials such as box-making board or paper towels. She encouraged her staff to re-use scraps in creative ways, either within the lab or outside of it. She also acknowledged that you do have to ask yourself on occasion if the effort and time it takes to accumulate and repurpose scrap is worth it, versus just getting new materials. Making scrap useful is again, not a “free” activity, as it requires staff time to sort and organize it in a useful way.
Piece of Japanese tissue torn into smaller and smaller pieces
Slide from Julie Newton’s presentation, showing how conservators can find uses for even the tiniest scraps of Japanese tissue.

I’ve made a list of the some of my favorite creative uses for scraps and “waste” that were presented by these speakers:

  • Several thousand pounds of paper dust were repurposed as horse bedding when it was donated to an Amish farm by ECS.
  • Excess rubber bands were donated by ECS to a teacher in Indiana, who is trying to break the record for the largest continuous rubber band ball.
  • Some materials can be composted, such as paper towels, old paste, used tea bags.
  • Scraps of board and paper can be donated to schools or local art programs and clubs.

All in all, the speakers acknowledged that recycling and reducing consumption requires some effort and staff time, but in the end it can make a big difference by improving the environment and providing a positive impact on our society. In addition, contributing to sustainability efforts helps strengthen our relationship with our surrounding community, by forging partnerships with local businesses and environmental groups.
What creative solutions for repurposing “waste” or reducing material consumption has YOUR lab undertaken? Share them in the comments!