Water Conservation in Paper Labs

14 12 2007

I spent a good part of this week wrist-deep in tubs of water. Just my wrists and hands, mind you, although when the water was warm I was tempted to climb in with the print I was attempting to remove from it’s backing board. Bending over a tub while removing mat fragments from the surface of another print, I had time to think about water.

It’s a topic I come to often – one with a hefty portion of guilt attached. I’m one of those people who makes sure to turn off the tap while I brush my teeth. If I leave a glass of water sitting overnight, I toss it on a plant instead of down the drain. I’m careful about our water-using appliances at home. I have a garden made up of agave, sage, and yucca, and I water my veggies sparingly – poor things. I pay attention to the dwindling resources and water fights in this country and others. I feel pretty sure the next world war, or our very own civil war, won’t be over oil, but potable water.

So when it comes time to pour gallons of water down the drain every work week just to make pieces of paper a bit more flexible, a bit less brown, I flinch. And I wonder how to reconcile the actions of my career with the needs of the global community, just as I do at home.

I don’t have any answers yet, but I plan to talk about this fairly often on this blog. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Eventually, I’d like to form some sort of discussion group, but if all that happens is that I get some people thinking, that’ll be good too. There’s a lot to discuss. I have ideas…

Here are some:

  • Re-examine paper washing research through the lens of water efficiency. For example, is blotter washing effective enough, even when the media could handle immersion? Would the water savings offset the water needed to rinse or recycle blotter? (And how much paper/blotter recycling happens in paper labs, anyways?). What about shallow, frequently changed baths vs. deeper, longer ones?
  • Start measuring exactly how much water is used during the course of treatment, to increase water use awareness.
  • Measure the environmental impact of what we pour down the drain
  • Explore the possibility of instituting gray water recycling and installation of water-saving devices, especially in all those new green-built facilities.

So, please, let me know your ideas!

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4 responses

4 01 2008
Fletch

In some ways, doesn’t this just feed into the question of the value of our work? I don’t mean to dodge the issue of finding ways to limit water waste, but your point about the effectiveness of blotter washing pushed a little button in my head.

How do we measure the value of conservation vs. the value of water? At what point does the diminishing returns of another bath for an item cost more than it is worth? Can we compare “research/aesthetic” value to environmental/economic value, or are those worlds too different to provide meaningful benchmarks?

4 01 2008
bethhellerconservation

I agree, Fletch, and when the question comes down to “I have one gallon of water left – should I drink it, water plants with it, bathe myself, or bathe this piece of paper”, it’s pretty easy to drop the last two things out of the equation. And the fact is, a large chunk of the world is there already, and is they are, then we are, given our global interdependence. So, really, is historic preservation justification enough? For now, I’ll keep doing it, but I’m waiting for nanobots to do our bidding more efficiently, or some other new tech method.

5 01 2008
Fletch

Funny thing, I just read the most recent Restaurator, and there was an article comparing the relative effectiveness of immersion vs. blotter washing vs. suction table washing. (Sorry that I can’t find an online reference) As with many articles in the journal, there is a lot of data without much meaningful analysis. From my brief reading it seemed to indicate that immersion was (surprise, surprise) significantly more effective at removing soluble acids from paper. Of course, there was no indication of the relative “improvements” in the post-washing papers to serve as a meaningful reference.

5 01 2008
bethhellerconservation

Thanks for the reference – I’ll have to read that. It does seem fairly obvious by now that immersion does more than blotter washing. I’m all in favor of examining the obvious from new perspectives – I’m just not sure what new perspectives to apply to find a different, less redundant outcome that might shed some light on the question. I think I’m less a scientist than I am an instigator – if I ask the questions, maybe someone with a lab and some free time will get something going. Are you that person?

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