The materials we use on a daily basis have an impact on the environment not only through their manufacture, transport and use, but also their waste processing. By extending the life of the materials we use, we not only make use of the resources and energy required to produce them, but delay the impacts and emissions associated with their life after use.
The easiest way to reduce the quantities of materials that must be thrown away is by only buying and dispensing what is needed. Keeping track of the use-by dates of products and only buying in appropriate quantities helps ensure materials can be reasonably used within their lifetime. Buying in bulk may be economical and involve less packaging relative to the quantity of materials, so sharing orders with other local institutions can help ensure everyone is stocked with an appropriate amount of materials. Consider renting, borrowing or sharing rather than buying equipment that is infrequently used or needed only for a short time.
Engaging in a ‘waste audit’ can be a useful way to measure waste reduction or investigate sources of waste in a conservation laboratory or organisation (Brophy & Wylie 2013, p.104). In a waste audit, waste is kept on-site for a defined period – a day or a week or the length of a project. At the end of the period, the waste is laid out on a plastic sheet, sorted based on categories such as recyclables and single-use items, or by material type. Based on this information, solutions for waste reduction or replacing sources of waste with reusable alternatives can be determined. The results can be compared with the results of a second waste audit after waste reduction solutions have been put in place.
When materials are leftover in small quantities or no longer suitable for their original purpose, opportunities for re-use may be available. Durable materials such as Tyvek or Mylar can be washed and re-used rather than thrown away when dirty. Consider donating clean materials (such as cardboard or foam offcuts) to other organisations that may up-cycle physical materials, such as art organisations or schools. Online organisations such as Sustainability in Conservation and KiCulture and the AICCM member case studies below offer examples of how materials can be creatively repurposed to extend their life.
At the end of their life, materials should be responsibly disposed of. If materials are not disposed of correctly – for example, placed in the wrong bin, this may lead to reusable or recyclable materials ending up in landfills. Disposal and recycling practices should always be based on local guidelines, as the requirements of local waste processing, recycling plants and landfills differ depending on location and local regulations. When in doubt, seek information from local council websites or call local waste management plants directly to ask questions. It may be helpful to have locally and lab specific guidelines pinned near waste disposal areas as a reminder about how common items should be disposed of. Alternative forms of waste disposal, such as soft plastics recycling through REDCycle or glove recycling through TerraCycle, can be investigated for materials that cannot be recycled through the local council.