Working with clay is not the most environmentally friendly craft there is. This is mainly because clay and the other materials we use in pottery are largely (not always) natural and finite resources. Yes, new clay is constantly being formed by natural earth processes but if you have been in the pottery game for a while you'll know that sometimes clays or ingredients simply disappear on us. This can be because a mine runs out, it's no longer economical to mine that material, or legal issues are prohibitive.
I consider myself an old hand now as I still talk about a clay that was magic and is no longer around. If anyone remembers red brown stoneware from primo, let's reminisce sometime over what a great clay it was and how we are all worse off without it.
In acknowledgement that the resource we use to make pottery is precious, we practice a variety of methods in the Mystery Creek Ceramic studio to recycle, reuse and reduce our impact on the environment as much as is feasible. These actions don't simply pertain to our clay resources, but everything we do in studio—the more action is taken, the greater the impact.
Clay is such a wonderful material. I honestly could talk about clay all day.
A fabulous thing about clay is that up until its first firing it is completely recyclable. A key part of our process when making large batches of pottery is to notice cracks early. If we catch a crack, flaw, rogue piece of another colour or anything that will make a piece either a second or not usable we smash it and recycle it straight away.
This is not a flawless process but is helpful to minimise waste.
Working in coloured clay makes this step a bit more challenging than in a conventional pottery production studio. We work with 12 to 20 different colours of clay and up to 3 different types of clay depending on the product type (e.g. paper clay for nerikomi, porcelain for throwing and slip for casting). We usually have 12 buckets each with a different colour of clay for all of our scraps, then when we go to re-stain the clay we pop these scraps at the bottom and incorporate them into the new batch.
Rainbow scraps are the most difficult to deal with but some of the darker colours like black, dark blue and dark green overpower all other stains so rainbow is recycled into one of these colours.
When a piece cracks after the bisque firing we still recycle the piece. It gets a bit harder at this point as the pieces must be ground up into grog (speckles). This is usually used in Alex’s sculptural work but in the future we hope to get a ball mill and make this coloured speckle available to anyone who is interested in making work with it.
We also have a much-anticipated annual seconds sale (scheduled for June this year). Seconds are pieces with small imperfections that make them unsaleable at full price but they still find loving homes; they may have cracks, glazing issues or handles that haven't quite attached securely. Seconds are still functional and beautiful, I just can't bring myself to smash them so it's wonderful that you all see the beauty in the imperfections as well.
Another challenge we encounter with sustainability is shipping fragile items. The paper packaging alternative hasn't proven to be the right fit for us so we've had to resort to using bubble wrap, however, we make sure the rest of our packaging is as sustainable as possible. All the boxes we use are recycled. so if your order arrives in a box that looks a bit battered it's because the box has had a previous life. Don't worry though, the pieces inside are still stunning but we don't buy new boxes unless we absolutely have to. Did you know wine boxes fit bags of clay perfectly?
The key when packaging pottery is to ensure the items can't hit each other or the walls of the box. The filler we've found that's best is corrugated cardboard (especially between handles) and wood wool.
Our orders that go out to large galleries are all in recycled boxes that we are lucky enough to source from a local business. These are nice sturdy boxes and all the same size - postage win!
Plastic in the studio
I don't believe you can do pottery without plastic; it's a wonderful material that slows down the drying of clay. We store clay wet in two different ways in the studio— our big lumps of coloured clay and pre-prepared coloured blocks live in our two fridges. These aren't cold as they're both broken but make great damp cupboards.
From a local business we divert a flow of thick plastic from landfill. This plastic is no longer needed but is absolutely perfect for us to wrap clay, cover mugs and wrap items that require slower drying.
We actually have so much of this plastic at the moment so if you're a potter and need some thick plastic for use in our studio pop into the shop, you can have some for free!
We're able to reuse it over and over and cut it up into all shapes and sizes. If you can't pop into the shop we'll send you as much as you like if you're happy to pay the shipping, flick us an email.
Every pottery tool or clay order we get I tuck some in the box so all the potters can have a great stash of plastic.
We don't have running water in our studio or a sink. This seems pretty wild but is actually a great way for us to conserve water. We still have the normal settling tank system for all our ceramic waste water but I've really found that having to go to the outside tap helps us be more conscious about the usage of clean water.
We leave each bucket that has become ‘dirty' overnight to settle and then decant the clean water off again to ensure we reuse the water as many times as possible.
We're constantly looking to refine and optimise our reduce/reuse/recycle methods and for ways to be kinder to the planet as a business, so we welcome any suggestions that you may have for us (besides the paper bubble wrap alternative—we've tried!), we'd love to hear your thoughts below.