Reduce Environmental Impact With Green Bench Practices

The green movement is exploding as the media focus attention on the environment and global warming, spurred by Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, released in 2006. But the words green and sustainable are overused and have largely become marketing hype. So let’s define them: The green movement interweaves environmental goals with a sense of personal and social responsibility. Sustainable practices use resources without depleting them or permanently damaging the environment that yields them.

For jewelers, sustainable business practices begin with analyzing their supply chain. When placing orders, ask questions about suppliers’ products and practices before purchasing. Where do they come from? Is the metal recycled? Are the gemstones responsibly sourced and processed without using child or sweatshop labor? How have they lessened the environmental impact of their packing materials and shipping procedures?

Ask to see copies of their fair-trade, social, and environmental policies and ask which of their products are produced accordingly. If no policies exist, encourage them to develop responsible practices and abide by them in their sourcing. “Be sure you bring up your concerns, and if they don’t give you the answer you’re looking for, seek alternative [sources],” says Eric Alulis, vice president of product development for Superfit Inc.

“Buy from companies that are earnestly trying to make a difference,” advises Gabriel Craig, green consultant for the Society of North American Goldsmiths. “Request that they carry eco-friendly products, or inform them that you would be interested in purchasing eco-friendly products if they were to be carried.”

When possible, choose local suppliers to minimize shipping costs and carbon footprint.

Metal refining is also potentially damaging to the environment, says Alulis. “When choosing a refiner to partner with, be sure to understand how their operations are run,” he advises.

Refiner Hoover & Strong is working to minimize its environmental impact and improve the efficiency of its operations. “Our new refining process uses 80 percent fewer chemicals and saves two days of refining time,” says company president Torry Hoover.

More suppliers are shifting to recycled metals. All precious metals purchased from Hoover & Strong are 100 percent recycled. At Rio Grande, sterling casting grain and sterling jewelry products cast in-house are 100 percent recycled. Using recycled precious metals reduces the need for mining, lessening its environmental impact.

Tracing the supply chain of gemstones is more difficult. Considerations include the treatment of miners, stonecutters, and polishers in addition to the environmental impact of gem mining and manufacturing. The Madison Dialogue was established in 2006 to promote communication among groups that want to encourage the development of responsible sources of gemstones and precious metals.

Some retail jewelers are partnering with small-scale miners who can assure them of ethical practices. Others are partnering with wholesalers who oversee each step of the supply chain. More information on this can be found in the April 2008 issue of JCK (The Green Issue).

Specific environmentally responsible bench practices include the following:

Capture and reclaim all precious metals. You can download tips for improving your returns from the Hoover & Strong Web site (www.hooverandstrong.com). These include separating metal scrap, installing a sink trap, capturing dust in floor mats or carpets, and vacuuming frequently with a dedicated vacuum.

Collect anything used in precious-metal manufacturing in a special bin to be turned in for refining. Aprons, rags, buffs, brushes, emery paper, and polishing dust also may be refined. Jewelers can use a wet paper towel (made from recycled paper) to clean their hands before washing at the sink. Workers should reuse their own paper towel throughout the day to reduce waste. Collect the towels in the bin to be refined in order to capture particles usually washed away. The refiner assures us this practice is worth the effort, expense, and resources, stating, “You would be surprised at how many small particles go into the sewer otherwise.” Hang a cloth towel by the sink to dry hands after washing.

James Binnion Metal Arts recommends using a fully enclosed polishing hood like the Quatro Clearview. “It makes a significant difference in how much dust you capture, which is a sustainable environmental health practice and saves you money,” says James Binnion. He also recommends using cartridge or bag-type dust collectors instead of benchtop units, which allow much of the dust, including precious metals, to be blown out of the back of the unit. Clean the unit and change the bag or cartridge regularly to keep the system running at optimum efficiency, and send dust and collector to the refiner.

Encourage customers to recycle their precious metals. America’s jewelry boxes contain an incredible supply of precious metals. Everyone has broken, outdated, or rarely worn jewelry that could be brought back into the supply chain, significantly reducing the need for mining. Encourage people to trade their old jewelry for store credit, and educate those who do about the environmental and monetary benefits. Hoover & Strong offers a formula and estimation chart to help jewelers calculate how much to offer for old jewelry. As more people seek environmentally sustainable products, this will help ensure the future of your business.

Conserve energy, water, and fuels. Use compact fluorescent and standard fluorescent lightbulbs. Fix drafts to reduce heating and cooling bills. Turn things off when not in use.

Marc Choyt, president of Reflective Images and author of The Ethical Jewelry Handbook, recommends working with organizations that can help you compensate for the carbon you generate. He explains, “You can do this through a number of ways, from tree planting to purchasing carbon offsets.”

Designer Toby Pomeroy, Corvallis, Ore., who pioneered the idea of using precious metals from reclaimed sources, has the option to purchase sustainably generated electricity from Pacific Power. He and Choyt encourage their employees to bike to work, and Pomeroy offers a $25 per month bike-shop credit. Similar incentives could encourage employees to take public transportation.

Control water usage. Never let water run when not in use. Consider keeping a wash bucket in the sink or near your bench instead of running water down the drain to wash each item. If you replace the solution in your ultrasonic cleaner frequently, implement a system with two units. Use the first for pieces straight from the buffer and the second for final cleaning. When the dirty water needs to be changed, replace it with the cleaner water from the second machine. Starting only one new bath will save water and use fewer cleaning agents, said manufacturer Aron Suna to the MJSA Journal.

Reduce toxics and chemical use. Many jewelers have switched to cadmium-free solders and fluoride-free fluxes and are seeking other less toxic alternatives to traditional studio practices. Citric pickle solution, for example, is healthier for the jeweler and the environment than standard pickle solution, although most jewelers report that it works more slowly. “We have been selling quite a bit of citric acid pickle lately,” says Steve Frei of Otto Frei.

Jeweler, author, and educator Charles Lewton-Brain says the simplest thing jewelers can do to lessen their environmental impact is “change practices to reduce chemical loads.” His book, The Jewelry Workshop Safety Report, includes sample chemical inventory and chemical profile sheets as well as a procedure evaluation form and a substitution checklist.

Lewton-Brain recommends analyzing all studio practices, implementing health and safety precautions, and substituting alternatives to reduce risks. He says jewelers should “avoid bombing, reduce cyanide use, and reduce or eliminate solvents.” If solvents are necessary, he recommends ethyl, benzyl, and isopropyl alcohols, as well as acetone, as the safest. “There is no such thing as nontoxic,” Lewton-Brain says. “Toxicity is often dose dependent.”

With all less toxic alternatives, be sure to read the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) and use proper ventilation, safety, and disposal procedures. Hazardous waste disposal procedures vary by region. Check with local government and sanitation agencies for information.

Reducing chemical use not only saves the environment but also can offer cost savings. Experts suggest jewelers look to other industries to find innovative environmental solutions regarding chemical use and substitution.

Alulis says his company has achieved significant savings by using a cleaner manufacturing process with its newest high-speed CNC machines. “We are able to run all of our CNC operations using 100 percent ethanol as a coolant/lubricant,” he explains. Substituting ethanol for the commonly used petroleum lubricants reduces the disposal and refining costs associated with petroleum-based lubricants, plus it evaporates cleanly, eliminating a secondary degreasing step. This less toxic substitution saves the company approximately $10,000 annually.

Reduce and recycle packaging. Reduce the size of your packaging, choose recycled packaging products, and ask your suppliers to do the same. Hoover & Strong encourages customers to recycle their boxes by using them for shipping back scrap for refining. Choyt says his company saves money by reusing boxes, including FedEx boxes, and shredding paper for packing. “At first, we had some concern because we imagined that customers might not like to receive jewelry in a used box, so we had a stamp made that says in green ink ‘All Shipping Products Are Recycled.’”

Reuse plastic peanuts and other nonrecyclable packing materials or take them to a retail mailing service such as Mailboxes Etc.

Make it easy for employees to recycle by having the recycling bins easily accessible. For example, put aluminum and plastic bins in the lunchroom and a paper bin by the copier. Many companies purchase recycled paper and reuse the second side of paper for interoffice copies.

Educate yourself and others. Do everything you can to educate yourself on environmental and ethical issues associated with the jewelry industry, as well as the impact of your studio procedures. Use what you learn to educate your customers about ethical and sustainable values and practices.

“The eco movement in the jewelry industry is in its infancy but is growing at an astonishing rate,” says Toby Pomeroy. He estimates that awareness of and interest in eco jewelry at the 2008 JCK Show in Las Vegas was approximately 50 times greater than it was last year.

That should be a wake-up call. And it’s very likely that consumers are out in front of the industry on environmental and humanitarian issues. As consumer awareness increases, your efforts to help the planet will also help your business.