sustainability & ceramics

I am a child of the 70’s, raised in a middle-class family by baby boomer parents. During my childhood I clearly remember a compost bucket being used in our kitchen that was placed outside for weekly pickup. Coke or Pepsi were poured from glass bottles that came stored in a segmented wooden crate that we would take back to the beverage distributor to be replaced with a new case of soda. Every summer I watched my mother tend to a modest vegetable garden in our back yard. Groceries were bagged in paper because there was no other option. When our shoes grew worn, we often went to the cobbler for repairs. Second hand shops were a common supplement to the roster of stores we went to for clothing. In my neighborhood of Mayfair, in Northeast Philadelphia, we commonly walked; to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the doctor’s office, the train station, the bakery, the playground, the deli, the pizza place and to and from school each day. Little did I know that these elements of my young life planted the seeds of sustainability.

It’s hard to grasp how much convenience culture took over and permeated every aspect of life as I moved into adulthood. Only within the last five years have I started questioning how each of my everyday choices affect my health, my home, my business and the world. It is often overwhelming and at times it feels like it’s too late to make an impact or that climate change is coming faster than we can move to make a difference. I believe any small step is a forward step and that even if we cannot save the world we can change it.

In the Spring of this year I finally started the process of switching all of my packing materials from plastic bubble wrap to corrugated cardboard and kraft paper. Once I finish the using up the plastic packing tape I have I will be moving on to use paper tape and then all of my packaging can be recycled, reused or composted. Making this change has been relatively easy, seems to be more cost effective and it also is so much more of a pleasure to work with ( = no brainer ). Moving into summer I found myself with a bit more free time in the studio. Summer is generally the slow season for my business. During this year’s slow period I worked on the minimal amount of wholesale orders I had while also simultaneously designing a new collection of work based on sustainability. I also took this time to really dig in and research what does it mean to be a sustainable potter? Ceramic work relies heavily on raw materials (ie: clay, minerals for glaze making) and natural energy resources (ie: electricity, gas or wood for firing kilns) but compared to industrial manufacturing, the impact of the individual maker is minimal. With that said, each one of us should take responsibility to evaluate our processes and personal impact on the environment.

Looking at my small business from multiple angles, I concluded that my impact is minimal but there was room for improvement. One of the perks of working in clay is that it is somewhat a renewable resource. I save any and all clay scraps, slip or whatever is trimmed off of the piece I am working on. If something warps or cracks while drying, it can be broken down into shards, submerged into water and then, once that clay has lost most of it’s water, it can be used again. Though this is something I have not practiced in my studio, pottery that has been fired can be ground down and added back into wet clay to add texture. I fire an electric kiln and could potentially do better there in terms of carbon footprint. I also travel about 150 miles round trip by car to buy clay. But I try to limit this to only 2 or 3 times a year and pick up large loads at once. Also, commercial clay is packaged in cardboard boxes (which I reuse and recycle) and each 25 pound block is wrapped in a plastic bag. The plastic helps keep the clay from drying out and so until another solution is found, I clean my plastic bags and take them to be recycled where they are accepted.

All of this brainstorming, research and reading inspired me to start thinking of how I can produce a collection of wares that echos and supports my goals of sustainability. Clay has an ancient relationship with food and beverages in cultures all over the world. It is a beautiful object literally rooted in the earth and a common sense material for storage. In looking at my practices in my own home I created a line of multifunctional wares that work together to reduce waste while being used for every day use. For example, a small plate, not much bigger than the palm of a hand, is made to be used as a coaster but can be turned over and used as a mug cover to keep your beverage warm, or to place next to your mug and hold a spoon and tea bag. This same small dish is a perfect size to use for oil when serving bread, or olives or nuts on a snack plate, or as the perfect surface to rest half of a lemon, cut side down in your refrigerator. This dish can be used as a place to store your jewelry on a bedside table or a place to set your morning supplements on.

The new core collection is called The Everyday Collection. It will launch the week of September 23rd. It aims to be the tableware you reach for every time you are in your kitchen. The plates and bowls function as they traditionally would but also double as a modular storage system for leftovers. The accessories in this collection such as the tea strainers, coffee pour-overs and napkin rings aim to encourage zero-waste habits. A collection that inspires ways to reduce, reuse and recycle. It is my hope that more people give thought to investing in well made, hand crafted, local or American made goods that can be cherished and passed down as family favorites. As someone who only recently purposefully began to eradicate plastics and disposables from her own kitchen - I understand the investment, time, and effort this takes as well as the commitment to choosing wisely in the future. I love the idea of wares slowly aging with the families, friends and individuals who use them.

“Evolving involves eliminating.” - Erykah Badu

Regina Mandell