Greening Conservation Practice

Greening conservation practice involves utilising less environmentally destructive chemicals, materials and methods in conservation. These include prioritising water-based cleaning systems; solvents with reduced toxicity such as alcohols (methanol, ethanol) and alkanes (heptane, hexane); reusable or recycled tools and packaging; glass instead of single-use plastic; and replacing disposal towels and blotters with washable towels or flannels. New methods involving cleaning with microemulsion, ionic liquids, lasers and gels are also part of greening conservation practice. (AM April 2019)

• De Silva, M & Henderson, J 2011, ‘Sustainability in conservation practice’, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 5-15.

Reviews the move towards sustainable practice in the museum sector and advocates actions for conservators to increase their environmental sustainability in the form of benchmarks.

Life Cycle Assessment

One method for measuring the environmental impacts of materials to make better choices is life cycle assessment (LCA). Similar to a carbon footprint, LCA is a tool that calculates the environmental impacts of materials (such as greenhouse gas emissions, water or energy use) across their life, from the extraction of raw materials through to the waste processing. Unlike carbon footprints, LCA can consider a wide range of environmental impacts and studies the whole life of a material, to identify ‘hotspots’ in the environmental impact. By using LCA to calculate the environmental impacts of conservation materials or processes, informed choices about processes and material use, re-use and disposal can be made.

The usefulness of LCA for greening conservation has been touched on in the conservation literature (Balliana, Ricci & Zendri 2016, p.186; Brophy & Wylie 2013, p.72). Overseas, a life cycle assessment project led by the American Institute for Conservation has used LCA to achieve sustainable improvements for a number of processes, including loans, lighting and packing (AIC 2018). Published in 2021, a key result has been the development of a bank of case studies and a carbon calculator tool for guiding sustainable practice (FAIC 2021). While LCA has not been extensively applied in materials conservation in Australia, one local study has considered the energy use and carbon emissions of heritage buildings (Iyer-Raniga & Wong 2012). The professional body for life cycle assessment in Australia is the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society (ALCAS) which provides data and resources for those wishing to learn more (ALCAS 2020). (IC October 2021)


Green chemistry is a concept that emerged at the end of last century in response to reduce the environmental impact and the potential negative health effects of chemicals and reaction products. Emerging from the environmental protection movement of the 1960’s, the principles of green chemistry have been legislated through command and control policies developed by regulatory bodies established in the following decades. Its preventive approach to risk management is outlined in The Principles of Green Chemistry (1991).

For chemicals in conservation, these Principles are mainly applied in two ways: using safer chemicals and finding alternatives to chemicals.

The use of alternative, non-hazardous consumable chemicals to replace industrial chemical solvents and biocides is the subject of continuing research. In place of biocides, tea tree oil and zosteric acid have been trialled as antimicrobial sprays to reduce mould growth (Cappitelli et al. 2011; Gatenby & Townley 2003). Another promising approach is the reuse of existing low-cost materials, seen in the employment of used tea leaves as adsorbents to maintain acetate film storage environments (Bell, Newnham & Nel 2017). In addition to offering cost advantages, these alternative techniques reduce reliance on purpose-made or single-use chemical products, reducing the carbon impact.

Reducing reliance on solvents can minimise the need for energy consumption, waste management, and risk to both people and heritage materials. The use of enzymes in hydrogel systems can replace solvents for surface cleaning to remove a variety of film-forming and staining residues (e.g. Cremonesi 2013; Edmonds & Horton-James 1991). New techniques such as laser cleaning have been developed to replace solvent-intensive treatments and are suitable for use on a variety of hard surfaces (Rode et al. 2006; Sawicki, Bramwell-Davis & Dabrowa 2011). There is also growing interest in the revival of traditional practices, such as re-burial as a cleaning method for specimen preparation of skeletal material (Teare 2019). Besides reducing solvent use, many of these methods have additional advantages in reducing the time or labour investment, and can offer greater control and localisation compared to solvent treatments. (CC November 2021)

Packing and Transport

Making green choices in packing and transport are crucial in implementing environmentally-friendly exhibition and collection practices. Exhibition professionals are looking for ways to make sustainable packaging changes, including opting for eco-certified products, reducing materials, and reusing packaging (Fenn 2012, pp.77-78).

Exhibitions should take account of carbon emissions in transport and energy consumption in packing materials. The global shift to virtual exhibitions and digital collections since the Covid-19 has a silver lining in reducing carbon footprint in exhibition practices. As no transport is needed, consumption of energy and materials used in packing and travelling is significantly reduced (Hernandez 2013, p.24).

Waste reduction

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.