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Eco-conscious and Ethical metalsmithing - chemicals and consumables

We want our jewellery and our jewellery making to bring joy to the world and not deplete it's resources, damage it's environment or exploit it's people. This week we look at the chemicals and consumables used in our jewellery making and how we can work to make them a more environmentally responsible choice.


GAS


This one is complicated. All gases used in jewellery making (commonly propane, acetylene, butane and hydrogen) have a high environmental impact in their production. Whether or not they come from fossil fuels they use a large amount of energy to create, process and store. The most important thing in using gas responsibly in the workshop is to use as little as possible. Be mindful about how long your run your torch, flame size and production methods. Choose a gas which has lower harmful emissions (both for the environment and your own health).


In the jewellery school we mainly use a butane gas for soldering. When burnt, butane produces H2O - water and CO2 - carbon dioxide. Whilst these are safe gases to use in the workshop (both naturally present in the air we breathe) CO2 is a principle green house gas and contributes to climate change. But the amount of gas we use is small on a national or global scale. We aim to be as efficient and economical as possible with our gas.


For higher heat we have a hydrogen torch. This create hydrogen and oxygen gases from pure water and so the gas itself is clean burning and could be classed as environmentally friendly... but the gas is produced using electricity which can be made using fossil fuels.


PICKLE


There are lost of options for pickling jewellery, most are acid based and all work by removing the copper oxides from the surface of the silver and holding them in the pickle solution. You'll see you pickle start to change colour and go blue as you use it. This is the copper oxides accumulating in the pickle.


In the jewellery school we use citric acid. It's an organic material which is safer to handle and work with in both powder and liquid form than traditional jewellers pickles. Once the pickle is used and contains copper oxides it becomes toxic so care should be taken when handling it. Wear gloves and safety glasses.


What ever pickle you use, the most important thing is how you dispose of it. Those copper oxides are very toxic and should not enter the water coarse. You can't just flush it away.


The acidic pickle can be neutralised by adding an alkaline such as bicarbonate of soda but this will not remove the toxic coppers from the solution.


Many jewellers find they rarely have to dispose of used pickle. When it gets too low it's topped up with water, when it loses effectiveness another scoop of powder is added.


If you do need to dispose of used pickle what is the best way to do so? Ideally, let the pickle evaporate until you are left with dry copper salts and then take those, in a sealed container to your local waste facility. Make sure the container is well labelled as TOXIC and COPPER OXIDES so it can be dealt with appropriately.


In the jewellery school, we pour our old pickle into a sealed tub containing cat litter. This absorbs the pickle and stores it until we can dispose of it. The lid has holes drilled to allow the water to evaporate.



FLUX


Flux is used to prepare the metal for soldering, drawing away impurities so the solder can bond all surfaces well.


There are many different commercially available fluxes available. When you choose a flux you should be able to download a safety data document from your supplier. This should tell you the ingredients in your flux and then you can research into the ethics of the manufacture and use of those chemicals. The main ingredient in most commercial fluxes is borax.


In the jewellery school we use pure borax cones as a flux, it's safe to work with (though not safe to eat) and as it is a single ingredient - borax is predominantly made from boron, a mined mineral - we know what we are working with.


Whilst borax does occur naturally, most borax is synthetic,


But while it is relatively safe for us to work and often sold as a green cleaning product there is an environmental impact in it's production.


Boron mining is detrimental to the environment. The mines themselves contribute to deforestation and habitat destruction in Turkey and the USA, and also in Argentina, Chile, Russia, China, and Peru. Mining is also a source of pollution in water sources and air.



OUR TOP TIPS FOR SUSTAINABLE METAL SMITHING

1. Be inquisitive.

Find out everything you can about the chemicals and consumables you choose to work with in your workshop. Using single ingredient consumables can make this easier.


2. Do what you can.

You can't make your practice 100% ethical. By making anything you are impacting the environment and the people that live in it. But that doesn't mean that you should give up entirely or that you shouldn't try to reduce the impact where possible. It will never be perfect but it can be better.


3. Think about the whole process - manufacture - transport - usage - disposal.

The choices you make will often be a compromise - eg using a hydrogen torch is a cleaner gas but uses more energy to produce it. Think about all stages of the material, how it's made, where it comes from, how you use it, how it's disposed of.


You'll have to make choices about what you value most or want to prioritise. Some materials might result in less pollution of fumes when used but could be mined in an environmentally damaging way. Some materials might do have less environmental impact in their but they are being transported from the other side of the world. Some might be a vegan friendly choice but are not recyclable. You may have to balance off the benefits with the disadvantages of a consumable and make an imperfect choice.


4. Keep up the research.

The advice on ethical metal smithing is always changing and growing. Sign up to blogs and newsletters that look into these issues so you can be up to date with the latest advice.

Try these to start with

If you introduce new materials, techniques or processes to your work then do your research on the ethical and environmental impact they may have.


5. Share.

Let your customers and other jewellers know about what you do in your practice to be more sustainable. By sharing the information you have, the practices you use and the techniques you have developed you will be improving the impact of your choices by enabling, encouraging and empowering other makers and jewellers to do the same

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