23 July 2007

the *green* ware question

Hello Friends,
I am finally getting to my next guest blogger (whom by the way was much more timely about getting it together than moi!). Laura Zindel is not only a brilliant ceramic artist but also a very dear friend. She and I met thirteen years ago at a restaurant we both worked at in San Francisco for a brief time (I walked out on the job two weeks after I met Laura but I made sure I had her phone number before I made my dramatic exit!). We've shared studio sales, mold making sessions, kiln disasters, wedding dress shopping, honeymoons (I was invited to her and her husband's honeymoon!!), babies born, family, relationships past and present, late night stories, bottles of wine and of course any number of ceramic related issues that constantly present themselves. Laura never ceases to wow me with her work and I am so happy to feature her here because as far as I am concerned you can never get enough of this fabulous, talented and successful lady. Plus she brings up a very important topic which I think you all will find very interesting. Please read on...

Laura Zindel working in her Vermont studio


I am Laura Zindel -Diana's Blog guest. Diana is one of my favorite potters, not to mention my very dear friend and comrade in clay.
Diana asked me to talk about a new subject on the horizon, Green Ceramics. It is not something that I made up, or really wanted to be a part of, but I will tell you my story and hopefully it will give others a place to talk about their ideas. Diana was my first go to girl on this subject and we have had many conversations since it started.

It all started one morning when I received this e-mail:

I'm extremely interested in finding out a little more about your product.
I'm in the process of opening up an environmentally friendly, socially responsible store in Los Angeles and absolutely love your china and prints. I was wondering if the pieces are as environmentally friendly as they can be with the glazes that you use....it's extremely important to me as i want to feature beautiful pieces that are socially responsible, plus I love the insect and bird motifs....could you please get back to me...
Do you have a rep in the Los Angeles area, or do you fulfill all your orders directly?
What is your minimum order?

Well, you would think that such an e-mail would flatter and interest me, not elicit my immediate response, which was anger. I did not understand my feelings at this point but my instinct had red flag warnings waving everywhere.

I wrote back and told her that no ceramics are Eco friendly because of the firing glazing process and if anyone was telling her something different I wanted to know about it.

What happened next was a week or so of e-mails back and forth between us, me trying to set her straight and her telling me what she had found out about my world of ceramics. In one letter she told me,that there were a bunch of potters that were very Eco -friendly, and then gave me their e-mail addresses so I could see for myself. Supposedly there was this whole movement toward socially responsible ceramics that I was somehow not a part of. When I decided to jump on board and join the party, then she would want to sell my work.

When had this happened I wondered, How had I been living outside of something so big and not heard a word about it? So I started to do some research. First, I contacted everyone I knew in the clay world whose knowledge I trusted, to see if they knew something I didn't. And then I stayed awake more nights than I care to admit, to prove that ceramics was not Eco-friendly, that we raped the land and let out excessive emissions into the environment. At one point I started to questioned my sanity, What was I doing? One morning, around three am, my husband caught me surfing the Internet in the living room, which I never do. I told him it was within his rights to ask me to stop if my behavior was interfering with his ideas about me as a wife and mother. He went back to bed.

I went to the web sites of the environmentally friendly potters that the gallery owner told me about. On one site, a potter making very nice copper reduction pots states on his web site ... No toxic materials are used in these ceramics, they are therefore maker, user, and environmentally friendly . The work is 'Reduction' fired in a 40 cu. ft. Natural Gas kiln to a temperature of approx. 1340 degrees centigrade (cone14). The firing takes about 24 hours to reach top temperature.

Just about everything in this statement makes me so mad I don't even know where to start. First we have silica, then copper, then reduction, 40ft cu kiln, and end with Natural Gas I think, are you tripping. This is the kind of stuff that is really going to confuse someone that does not know about ceramics. It confused me, and I know a thing or two.

A list of my experts and their responses to the question of Green Ceramics.

Hey Laura,
I've had this question asked of me, and my response is always that ceramics is not an environmentally friendly process. I don't know how you make an environmentally friendly glaze, I don't even know what that would be. Firing uses a lot of energy, if not electricity, then gas or wood. I suppose I could investigate this further, I'm interested to know what your response is to this and how it got you worked up.

John Hull, Life long educator and Potter:
You got me thinking... Green... I am still getting my thoughts together but here are a few things.

I have asked a few people about this and they are bring up interesting points...could be a question of how green we are. Better to be more green than less green...

You and I work at home. We don't drive to work using fuel... that's green.

Your products are functional and don't get thrown away... that's green

When they get broken and are disposed of, the don't have a negative environmental impact... that's green

Your construction process doesn't use energy (electric potter's wheel, ram press,etc.)... that's green

You fire to a relatively low temp in an efficient kiln emitting no harmful gases (as in reduction)... that's green

Your kilns help heat the house and work space... that's green... you are quite green.

and on and on, BUT... Energy use, mining and transporting of materials and all that is a question. I will keep thinking as I am sure you will. x john

Don Santos, Head of Ceramics, SF City College:
I would reassure the LA person that your work is "as green as possible". But you are correct that ceramics in general is not particularly GREEN. In general as long as your glazes are semi-gloss to gloss they are food safe. The toxic metal oxides need to tied up with enough silica to not leach out. Gloss glazes tend to have this quality. But what makes ceramics inherently not green is the amount of energy that is wasted when we fire. If you can address the energy issue by saying you use the waste energy from your kiln to heat the studio, at-least you are using the energy twice. I hope this little bit of advice helps you.

Bob Lupica, CEO Niagara Ceramics:
When I asked Bob if his company was green his immediate response was: Absolutely! He then gave me a long list of the ways that I large ceramic manufacturer like Niagara recycled almost every scrap of material that was not boxed and shipped to a customer. (Well done Bob!)� But he also said that Silica was the new asbestos, and we could not make glaze without it. (bummer).

Sherman Hall, editor Ceramics Monthly:
(This was a phone call so I am recapping)� Sherman did not think that ceramics was green, because of all of the materials we use and the emissions let out during firing. Then he offered his team of technical experts to help support me in my mission to help educate my gallery owner, which I thought was very generous. What he said that most impressed me, was that it was important that all potter's not step over the line in describing ceramics as environmentally responsible. He said that it would only hurt all of us in the long run because the green police would eventually show up to collect.

Grace at Design Sponge:"I think that design shouldn't go out of its way to use materials that are incredibly toxic (ie: injection molded plastic) but I think for artists producing small editions it shouldn't be an issue of criticism if someone uses wood or ceramics. For me, if the production size is small it's not a big deal. No one jumps on fine artists for using oil paints, do they?"

What I came away from everyone of these very informed people was that all of them are concerned with the questions of how we might hurt the environment, but resigned to reality of making ceramics. I wrote one final e-mail to my green gallery owner, a tome really. It was filled with elaborate information about all of my findings. I was no longer in the breezy e-mail zone, but somewhere I had never gone with someone that wanted to sell my work. I was trying to talk her out of it. I thought I would not be hearing from her again.

To my surprise, a month or so later, I get this e-mail.

Wow Laura! You are thorough....it's been a while since I've written but i wanted to see if i can purchase some of your ceramics for my store...you've been the most honest and thorough person that I've talked to regarding ceramics....yes, it's true, some people tout Eco friendly products, but after talking to them, they are doing exactly the same as you....plus I LOVE your stuff WAY more than theirs....
so after having done a lot of research and talking to people at the International furniture fair, I'd like to purchase some of your incredible ceramics....
what is the best way for me to go about that do i order directly from you?
please let me know.

I have a lot of respect for someone very bent on wanting things to turn out their way, ( I know a thing or two about this attitude.) and then concede to the facts. She told me that she decided that ceramics would not be touted as green in her store, but she was going to give my bugs a "back story", instead....let people know how insects, birds, snakes etc... are necessary to our survival. I am ok with this approach. Its an honest one and I like it. I know I gave in pretty easy at this point, but this was never really my fight to begin with.

I realized when I managed to get a grip, that what I was really angry about, was marketing. Left in the hands of someone without scruples, my work could lead an unsuspecting public into thinking that buying my work was somehow going to help our environment, a terrible lie. But I will always believe that buying handmade work is better than the alternative, and that buying from your local artists is the best possible thing you can buy.

I want to thank all of the people that put up with my ranting and raving, while I did my "research" and Thanks to Diana's readers for bearing with a long story. If anyone wants to read the tome, filled with the undeniable facts, I can e-mail it to you.
Thanks especially to Diana for her Blog! I love it, and I think it is historic and wonderful.

Laura Zindel


carole epp said...

Thanks for this Laura and Diana. The honesty is refreshing. Well said. I think alot of us struggle with the desire to make work and the reality of the impact of that work on the environment. Hopefully this can lead to a larger discussion about the small things we can do and change in our practices (limiting shipping, waste materials, less electrical tools, etc.) to make a difference.

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting this - something that people seem to want is a green stamp for things and that just does not exist. i spec alot of "sustainable" materials for my job and we have to pin it on a "green continuium" because there is no one truely green sustainable option in any catagory - for example there are fabrics which are made at a factory with a virtually zero impact on the earth but then ultimately have to be shipped from switzerland to be used on a job! one has to be open to the grey areas and find the places that you can inhabit with what you want to do creatively and what your medium requires.....

lisa solomon said...

totally fascinating! thanks so much laura and diana!!

Anonymous said...

I've never commented here but am compelled to express appreciation for this post and the pricing post. I'm not really clear why I'm having such a strong reaction but I just have to voice my support. I admire the gallery owner for really listening to your research and further researching it themselves. Thanks!

Linda Johnson Studio said...

Diana, thak you for inviting Laura to blog on this and Laura, wow, thank you so much for writing this. i try to be as green as I can be in all that I do. I try to use non-toxic matierials and keep things clean in my studio. i love all the ideas you give on how to balance being green with the un-earth friendliness of the process. i think that buying handmade is so good for the environment, most things are made better and more thought goes into the purchase. hopefully people will keep them longer and pass them on. I'd love to see the e-mail/research you did. this is a topic so close to my heart. I used to help steer a corporate office to be more green before i left to pursue my pottery. thank you so much, and I just love your work : )

Linda Johnson Studio said...

sorry to comment 2x's, I just wanted to say that this is the best things I've read in so very long. I would love to see a blog about this or a forum for all of us clay people to share in. Thanks Again, Linda

Tiffany said...

That was the most interesting post! I would never have thought of a "green/non-green" debate concerning ceramics. I never thought of the energy and emissions, nor about the use of silica. This has really been eye-opening!

Camilla said...

First of all i'd like to say how lovely your work is Laura. Secondly I just want to say how interesting I found this post- not at all ranty! "Green" isn't something I had given any thought to at all about my work- I live a pretty 'green' lifestyle in many other ways, but to think about it in terms of ceramics never even crossed my mind. I've only recently returned to ceramics and instinctively feel like making ceramics is somehow a good and right thing to be doing- I hadn't even begun to think about the amount of energy used to fire a kiln (possibly because I am still using someone else's, with their energy bill!)I know when I use glazes I read the labels and know that some of them are toxic, but I just didn't put two and two together until now- it's like i've had a light bulb switched on! I'm not going to stop making ceramics, but this is something for me to think about as I decide just where i'm heading with my art. Thanks for such a well thought out and written post.

Shannon Garson said...

Excellent post. thanks to both of you . I continually struggle with the environmentally unfriendly aspects of firing and fantasize about the day when , using highly reflective mirrors someone invents a solar kiln!

Linda O'Neill said...

Great post, and Laura...I've seen your work at Art and Soul Gallery in Boulder. It's beautiful!

Eva said...

Really good post! Thank You!!!!!
Me too, I have n`t thought about "how green ceramics is". But I truly believe that supporting local artists and handmade stuff and preferring it to everything mass-produced is a good thing and I`m not going to back out from it.
I liked the shop owners idea to give your bugs back - story! I have to think about it and maybe I can implement something similar to my work too. We need education !!!!!
I hope to read more from your work and experiences. Besides a good topic here, you are a good writer. I enjoyed the writing!
Thank You!

diana fayt said...

Dear Diana's readers,
I am overwhelmed by all the great responses to my guest blog. I
check everyday and it so exciting! This is the first thing I have
written since Graduate school besides e-mail so I was happy
that it was received so well by everyone. It is apparent that Diana has a very informed and thoughtful readership. I love the light bulb moment comments, because this was my experience as well. I hope that we all keep trying to discuss safety for all of our studio practices, since I am no expert in this area, and ways to keep our impact low.
I myself will continue to be a Diana blog fan, and get my relevant
ceramic news this way!.

rae dunn. said...


great detective work and such strong conviction !!! it's amazing how mislead we are by advertising that isn't even truthful. people will believe what they are told especially when it's too good to be true. i admire your honesty. we should all strive to be as green as we can, but to survive in this world i don't think it's possible to be 100% green...we can only try the best we know how.

thanks to diana and her epic blog !

[nancy + andy] said...

Thanks Laura for bringing these ideas out in the open. While I agree that pottery isn't that "green" of a practice, I don't think it is as environmentally damaging as the misleading "eco-friendly" potters would lead others to believe it is. As far as kilns, (whether gas, electric, or wood) the great thing is we just have to read the meter or look at the stack of wood to be able to calculate the environmental impact of each firing. We can then take steps to offset this impact.
It would be interesting to compare the rate of energy use of a pottery studio to that of a laundromat (gas or electric dryers) or a restaurant (air conditioner, lighting, ovens, refrigeration). I think we would find that our kilns don't waste as much energy as we think (especially when they are full!).
PS-Your work is amazing and your business is very inspiring.

Whitney Smith said...

Great post laura! This green issue came up again on my blog-- I'm living at a pottery in Japan for the month of July that fires pottery using no glaze but what they get from the ash of wood firings. The amount of wood we go through is truly staggering, and almost every morning I wake up to the sound of a chainsaw. It's really a huge eye-opener. While I don't literally burn trees at my studio back in california, I wonder how many resources get used up every time I fire up my electric kiln. xoxo whitney

diana fayt said...

Here are a couple more comments that were sent via email to Laura. Laura and myself both thank all of you for your most thoughtful comments!!!

Laura, I loved your look into the Green Potters in your guest posting
on One
Black Bird. And I greatly admire your work.

I'm engaged in an oddly similar yet utterly different battle in the
world of
metalsmithing and metal clays- people doing all manner of toxic
thing and
saying it's totally fine. Burning up polystyrene, for one, which
monostyrene and benzene. Human mutagens, neurotoxins, embryotoxins.
It's not at all unreasonable to think that a kiln full of styrofoam
cores could end a pregnancy or cause birth defects. Its pretty
likely that
it's already happened by now, considering that our students are mostly
females, and most of them are of childbearing age.

I look at what these instructors are saying, and doing, and all of
the poor
craftspeople they have blithely firing up a load of assorted poisons
in the
den (our kilns are small and portable) and I think what you thought,
you high? or just stupid?"

My problem is that the people promoting these methods are actually the
senior people in my field.
Ah well.

I'm outside the castle, with my pamphlets.

I'm at


if you are curious.

Thanks for keeping me in the loop on this. I plan on bringing up
several of
these topics in my "From the Editor" column in the December issue
(sustainability focus). It's a lot to think about, and it may be a
pill to swallow for a lot of the "greenies" in our clay community, of
I consider myself one. The way I am going to come at it is to
that we do harm to the environment, and try to show the ways in which
we can
all lessen our impact and be as green as possible. For instance, how
do you
obtain perfect combustion so that you are not wasting fuel, and your
emissions are as clean as they can be? Can we use gray water (rain
etc.) in the studio to reduce treated-water usage? Though it is also
self-serving, how can potters get involved in "buy local" marketing
to encourage consumers to support an artisans work as opposed to
transportation fuel charges?

This can be a can of worms, but you are right that we shouldn't fool
ourselves into thinking we are green simply because we "work with the
earth." Oil companies "work with the earth" as well, and some of their
advertisements would have us believe they are green. This approach can
backfire if we are not honest about what we do.

You know, I only meant to send you a few lines in response, but as
you can
tell, this is a topic whose time has come. I think we will get a ton of
feedback on this issue.

By the way, do you get points if your studio walls are green?

Thanks again for being in touch, and be well.


Cynthia said...

Totally fascinating post and comments! I think about this every day when I go into my own studio. I try to use less toxic materials - but as Laura points out in her interview, silica among other materials is present in the glazes we use.

I fire in oxidation and am currently in talks with REC Solar http://www.recsolar.com/ in Colorado about adding solar panels to my garage/studio to fire my kilns and for heat and lighting. The rep that I've talked with says that I would still be tied into the grid as a back up. One of my concerns about relying on solar power is losing power that would affect my firing schedules, but since I would still be tied in, this won't happen.

Solar is pretty viable here in Colorado where we have about 300 days of sunshine a year, so I'm not sure about other states. Colorado also subsidizes and offers rebates to users of solar power.

While this doesn't necessarily answer the question of raw materials used and their impact on the earth and the environment, it makes me feel better about my work habits.

Working in my garage studio without running water has also been a bit of an environmentally friendly move - albeit not intentional. I would gladly have running water. I am forced to conserve water and decant it so that none goes to waste. God only knows what extra materials end up in my finished pieces with residual tid bits floating in the recycled water!

Outside of work, my family and I live in the city and share 1 car - which seems to be an anomaly now a days in the US. I garden organically and walk and shop local when I can. I hope when I look at the bigger picture, I'm doing what I can.

Kudos to Laura for educating the gallery owner and to the gallery owner for her understanding.

Anonymous said...

I am blown away by the fearsome honesty here. There is so much confusion fuelled by greenwash or simply not thinking things through, it can only have a terrible effect on the environmental movement. Reading this has urged me to think harder and question my own practices.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post as the green issue is relevant to all crafts. I knit and then felt a lot of my stuff. I have been thinking a lot about all the steps involved in what I do and I am always trying to find ways to make it more environmentally friendly. Thanks for posting this, it's good to see other people are trying to figure it out too.

Linda said...

First I'd like to say that I really like your work, Laura and Diana! The post about the green issue is great. I work in porcelain and with all honesty I couldn't say that it's "green". Maybe at some time in the future it will be.
ambrosia porcelain

Anonymous said...

I just read davistudio. Modern Table Art. I know very little about green pottery but she seems to believe she's made progress toward it. check it out.

MadeByAmanda said...

Wow, some really interesting information about something I've never thought much about. Her honesty is refreshing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. I was going to write an article for Kennedy Publishing about eco-friendly ceramics and was looking for information on what is being done in this area. Your story has made me rethink the direction I will take with the article. Thank you. - Deb Babcock www.dbabcock.etsy.com

Ciara said...

Just been reading your blog and found your point of view very interesting. I agree that by its nature the ceramic process isn't particualrly eco-friendly, but then what is? I feel that it is our responsibilty to make informed decisions in our work. Sourcing local clays, natural glazes(or perhaps using glaze alternatives such as terra sigillata), low firings, renewable sources of energy in firings, packaging etc. are just an example of areas that should be considered in our work. All are rarely viable in a person's work. But a conscious effort on all our behalfs can do nothing but good. This is an area of research which I am particularly interested in, and would really appreciate it if you could pass the web address or any info you have on ceramicist working with 'green' ethos, on to me. Thanks. Ciara

Ari said...

Thank you so much for this post! This is a question that I have been struggling with myself in my creative processes, and I doubt I could have been anywhere near as thorough in my research as you guys.

Cheers in clay!

Unknown said...

Oh, I am so glad to have read this post. It made me very happy for some reason. I guess, I just get so sick of people touting GREEN this and ECO-Friendly that when they really haven't a clue what they are talking about. The reality is, Green as you can be is good, and the more green products you purchase as opposed to insanely hazardous products like water bottles and 409 is great, but boycotting art and craft because it might not be green (by whose standard I'm not sure) is ridiculous. It isn't oil paintings, teak sculptures, and porcelain teapots that are ruining our environment. And even if they add a little to the mess, I bet the portion of the mess that art is responsible for could easily be cleaned up by 'mother earth' if we weren't burdening her with car exhaust, PVC garbage, and deforestation.