We explore the sustainability of the ceramics industry to encourage longevity of the craft and help further care for our planet.
The allure of pottery in the Western world has been widely due to its aesthetic appeal. But beyond beautifully designed and produced forms of art lies another layer of intention — objects that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
Ceramic art has many sustainable traits. It is produced from natural materials and handmade using traditional artisanal methods requiring time and patience, with the products standing the test of time. But pottery also has a carbon footprint due to the resources it consumes. There are many ways to reduce the impact of pottery on our planet without compromising on skill or creativity through reclaiming, reusing and recycling materials, along with other environmentally friendly practices that potters around the country are embracing.
What are “ceramic miles”?
Similar to the concept of “food miles” — the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is purchased or consumed — “ceramic miles” are the distance imported and exported products travel to reach their customer or artist. The more miles attributed to any given ceramic, the less sustainable and environmentally friendly it is. You can reduce your ceramic carbon footprint by relying less on imported materials and products as well as sourcing and selling locally.
An eco-friendly, multipurpose space
Designing a multipurpose space was at the core of Darren McGinn’s sustainable vision when he created his pottery studio and gallery-cum-café, StudioMade, in Geelong’s leafy suburb of Newtown.
The artist, designer and educator, who hails from rural Victoria, was surrounded by clay as a child and felt deeply connected with the natural world. “It was sort of in me to create,” he explains as he unloads one of his kilns. “I’ve made stuff my whole life,” he continues, and has been making pottery for almost 40 of those laps around the sun.
“There will always be a consumption of resources — that’s an important part of ceramics because you’re taking from the earth to create — but there will be a stronger emphasis placed on solar firing procedures and the reusing and repurposing of previously used materials.”
Sustainability is fundamental to McGinn’s creative processes, which focus on working with organic materials. The friendly potter is a carpenter by trade and rebuilt the space (café, gallery and studio) using second-hand and reclaimed materials. All coffees, including the flat white that Molly (his daughter behind the coffee machine) just made me, are served in pots McGinn handcrafts himself. This eschews any need for “ceramic mileage” to source coffee cups for his café, and the café’s coffee grounds are also recycled.
According to McGinn, who is almost 60, the rise of environmental consciousness in society is a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. “This is the rise of the maker. It’s a different era to any other time in the craft.”
In terms of the ecological footprint of his firing process, McGinn explains that solar power is not an economically viable option for him at the moment. To help ameliorate this, McGinn ensures he fires his kilns to maximum capacity. He also sourced his kilns second-hand and rebuilt them himself.
There are other eco-friendly practices at his studio, too. Glazes are mostly made from scratch and clay is reclaimed in buckets beside each wheel in a process McGinn likens to symbiosis: the interaction between two different things located close to each other and to the advantage of both.
Building sustainably from the ground up
Moving down a generation, and perhaps hearing McGinn’s call for the young generation of makers to step up, 24-year-old potter Jack Balfour is passionate about creating handmade products using a blend of beauty and function. He has been making pots for seven years at his home studio in the inner-east Melbourne suburb of Deepdene.
Balfour has always been conscious of sustainability in his craft, having undertaken a Bachelor of Industrial Design (Honours) at Monash University, where he developed a research project into reclaiming ceramic waste derived from his studio. Starting off his career with this level of environmental awareness has shaped how the artist creates his work from the backyard studio he hand-built using recycled pallets and repurposed timber from his property.
Despite this eco-friendly mindset, Balfour is hesitant to say ceramics is a sustainable craft due to elements of his practice like using gas to heat his kiln. “The only thing that saves you is the object you make lasts forever,” he explains. Balfour likens this notion to “playing with permanence”, an approach he has seen other Melburnian potters also embrace. “It’s the idea that what you make consumes a lot of resources and contains a lot of embodied energy, but if you can look after and care for this object, it will be functional forever.”
“Wood firing is one of the most environmentally friendly practices as far as pottery goes and is a beautiful craft.”
Balfour acknowledges the carbon-producing process of taking a fine-art material from the earth, such as clay, and then using gas or wood to fire it. “There will always be a consumption of resources — that’s an important part of ceramics because you’re taking from the earth to create — but there will be a stronger emphasis placed on solar firing procedures and the reusing and repurposing of previously used materials.”
Balfour is passionate about practising sustainably as much as possible. In addition to producing a fully recycled line of work, he also collects rainwater to use in his studio and is planning to use solar panel energy to fire an electric kiln in the future.
Ceramics that purify
Jeff Sosower of Southern Cross Pottery began working with clay when he was at university in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early ’70s. He established his business in 1987 and, motivated by his wife who is a registered nurse and very interested in alternative medicine, he decided that pure water would be an important avenue to explore through clay. Sosower has been making ceramic water purifiers ever since.
Ceramic miles and emissions released in the firing process are inherent environmental challenges in making pottery. However, Sosower says, “We generally source all materials locally. We also have very thermally efficient kilns which reduce our pollution level and fire very quickly. We also have sediment traps so that we are not polluting the water system and we do manage to recycle all of our clay and glazes.”
Of course, there is also the fact that Sosower is producing sustainable products. He says, “From an environmental perspective our products go a very long way to eliminating plastic bottles in relation to our ceramic water purifiers and eliminating paper and cardboard cups in relation to our recyclable ceramic cups.”
Regenerating the earth, one pot at a time
Working with nature, as opposed to against it, is at the core of Renton Bishopric and Clare Botfield’s philosophy at Pottery for the Planet, a reusable ceramic coffee cup company based in Queensland on the Sunshine Coast.
“For us, sustainability in ceramics is specifically focused on trying to eliminate the waste of single-use products,” explains Botfield. Working with a natural resource like clay is one way to do this. “Clay is one of the only raw materials on earth that is being created faster than humans are using it. The use of clay is a sustainable material choice,” she points out, also highlighting a regenerative element of working with the material. “When ceramic pieces are no longer in use there is no waste because they are simply made out of earth and can easily be returned to earth without causing pollution.”
Cracked, broken or chipped pottery is repaired using lacquer mixed with gold to highlight the beauty of its brokenness, rather than hide it.
Resourcefulness is key, adds Bishopric, who is a second-generation potter. “Like any industry there will be environmental impacts when things are done on a large scale, but the impact can be reduced by super-efficient firing and loading of kilns, utilising every bit of space in the kiln’s chamber and producing high-quality work that lasts for a long time if cared for.”
Distribution is one of their biggest environmental challenges, as the team are mindful of ceramic miles. “All our products get picked up by couriers and we do consider how we can reduce those miles each cup travels. One initiative we have put into place is we have set up a second studio in Margaret River, which employs a local potter to take care of production for the west coast of Australia. We have also set up a warehouse in Auckland, New Zealand, so that we could send a large shipment of our products by sea and have local distribution there, minimising all those single-order cups being sent by airfreight across the Tasman,” explains Botfield. “The other thing we have to consider as potters in an era where most sales are coming via online channels is packaging and how we can safely transport our wares without the use of plastic,” adds Bishopric.
Both McGinn and Balfour have alluded to the fact that firing provides an opportunity for potters to practise more sustainably through solar power or wood firing, which is something Bishopric and Botfield are planning at their new purpose-built studio in Noosa. “We are hoping to get an electric kiln, which we can run entirely on solar energy. We have a big north-facing roof and it is the ideal conditions in sunny Noosa for this to work,” explains Bishopric.
“Wood firing is one of the most environmentally friendly practices as far as pottery goes and is a beautiful craft,” adds Botfield. “Renton’s father has four wood-fired kilns still in use on the family property that Renton grew up firing on and still enjoys using when he can … The beautiful earthy pots that come out of each firing are sought-after and very popular.”
Going back to traditional pottery production is something a friend of the couple, Angus McDiarmid, is embracing. The potter digs his own clay by hand, throws his pots on a kick wheel (meaning no electricity is used) and wood-fires them. “Each piece takes him such a long time to make. He is the quintessential essence of sustainable ceramic practice,” remarks Botfield.
Changing with the climate
Any story involving natural resources can’t be without a discussion on climate change. Steve Harrison is a wood-firer, teacher and kiln designer based in Balmoral in the NSW Southern Highlands. The potter in his late 60s has been practising sustainability from the get-go. He even built Balfour’s kiln and has no doubt influenced part of Balfour’s environmentally friendly practices.
Harrison aims to be a completely “self-sustainable” potter, and has worked “off the grid” for more than a decade by using solar panels to fire his electric kiln, as well as using a wood-fired kiln he built himself. “I wanted to fire my pots as cleanly as possible, in an environmentally sensitive way,” he writes on the website he runs with his partner and fellow artist, Janine King.
This sustainable approach began in the ’70s when Harrison started growing trees on his three hectares of land in order to take carbon out of the air. “When I eventually burned this timber to fire my kilns, it didn’t introduce any new carbon into the atmosphere. This was the best approach to minimise my carbon footprint at that time,” he explains.
Times have changed, though. Wood firing isn’t as accessible now due to additional fire bans throughout the year as a result of the changes to our climate. “In the last couple of years we have been firing our work in the summer months of fire bans using a new low-thermal-mass electric kiln that I built from spare parts left over from my kiln-building factory. I designed and built a kiln that is fired using our solar panels and backed up by our Tesla Powerwall II battery,” he explains. “I realised that I needed to find another way to fire my work cleanly and efficiently into this uncertain, carbon-constrained, globally warmed future. The climate is changing, so we must change with it.”
But Harrison’s sustainable practices are not just something that cares for the planet. They’re also something that saved his life in the harrowing bushfires that scorched our homeland last summer. The potter was able to hide inside a makeshift kiln he’d created out of fireproof ceramic fibres as a raging bushfire struck his property. While many things can perish in the wake of a fire, Harrison’s experience reminds us of the impermanence of some materials such as a kiln, and the ability for that object to then preserve other items, like ceramics and pots, to stand the test of time.
From broken to beautiful
Taking an imperfect approach not only to the aesthetics but the lifespan of ceramics is something explored in the Japanese notions of wabi-sabi and kintsugi.
Wabi-sabi encourages an appreciation of the old, lived-in and pre-loved elements of pottery as they are qualities that add to its charm. “Wabi” refers to the beauty found in the asymmetry and unbalance in objects, while “sabi” celebrates the grace of ageing and the impermanence of life. Wabi-sabi suggests that the most treasured ceramics are cracked or even incomplete, and an example of putting wabi-sabi to practice in pottery is through the art of kintsugi.
Kintsugi, which hails from the Zen Buddhist ideals of wabi-sabi and dates back to 16th century Japan, translates to “golden joinery”. Cracked, broken or chipped pottery is repaired using lacquer mixed with gold to highlight the beauty of its brokenness, rather than hide it.
“It is up to potters to educate the consumer on the value of handmade products,” explains Botfield. “This can be a challenge when pieces don’t always turn out exactly the same as one and other,” she explains, which is, in essence, an example of wabi-sabi. “We must change people’s mindset so that uniqueness and individuality are appreciated more than the ‘mass-produced’ look.”
Sustainable pottery tips
- Use a solar-powered or wood-fired kiln.
- Pack and post pots using post-consumer waste.
- Recycle clay to turn into more pots.
- Recycle clay and glaze waste with local companies to reuse as aggregate in building materials.
- Recycle ceramics by embracing wabi-sabi and using practices like kintsugi.
- Source local clays and minerals for glazes to reduce “ceramic miles”.
- Completely fill up your kiln before firing.
McGinn suggests that “the gift of pottery is in the experience” — being able to handcraft an object with an armour of permanence that we, as humans, could never arm ourselves with. While some tangible items can perish in the wake of firing, which many people experienced during our last bushfire season, there will always be objects, like ceramics, that will last forever.
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