Should I make polymer clay jewellery in a world damaged by plastic?

A version of this post was published on the Samunnat Inc website

Plastic is definitely one of the bad guys in any discussion of the world’s environmental degradation, with good reason. The huge quantities of plastic that scar our lands and oceans

© Daniel Müller / Greenpeace https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/15882/every-minute-of-every-day-the-equivalent-of-one-truckload-of-plastic-enters-the-sea/ under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

are the direct result of single-use plastic items, packaging and other indiscriminate use. We should do as much as possible to limit its potential impact on marine and human health.

Polymer clay is plastic mixed with pigments, features that it shares with acrylic paint. I have been challenged about the appropriateness of adding to the world’s plastic burden by making polymer jewellery. I take this question extremely seriously. Like all questions, it contains nuances and relative risks and benefits. I’ve thought through the issues and believe that my polymer use is principled and responsible.

Plastic is easily vilified because it is most often associated with single use, disposable materials, and packaging. The problem lies as much in the way we use the material as the material itself. Necklaces made by world-renowned artisans using polymer clay sometimes can sell for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. True, they can’t be composted but they are not designed to be composted or worn only once. I use this material to make pieces that are designed to be treasured and even passed down from generation to generation.  I work with the women of Samunnat Nepal who also make polymer jewellery. The funds they raise from their art contributes to positive social change in their community and supports many women in difficult circumstances.

 All artists should constantly evaluate their impact on the world. I do several things to minimise the impact of the material we use on the environment.  For those interested, these are outlined at the end of this post.

In an ideal world, all art would be biodegradable. However, I do not create my art to be composted. In an ideal world I would not own a car, or travel in a plane, but I do. In an ideal world, a bicycle would have no plastic components, but it does. These things might change with new technologies. When a suitable alternative to polymer clay is developed then I will embrace it.

Many of us share the goal of reducing and eliminating single-use and disposable plastic items. I am not creating these. As with the use of all materials, it is not always possible to make black and white statements about what is and is not a suitable medium. It is our task to chart our course mindfully and thoughtfully through these difficult questions.

My Material Use Manifesto

  1. I create beautiful, unique pieces that are designed to be treasured, not disposed of.
  2. I use a brand of polymer (Kato) that is phthalate free. Most polymer clay is now phthalate free.
  3. I minimise wastage of clay in the following ways:

    I mix all my own colours in small quantities, only mixing as much as I need for a particular range or pieces.

    I recycle ALL scrap clay. It is either remixed to create new colours or used to create the frame (not seen) of pieces. For example, the core of every single bead, and many bangles, is recycled scrap clay.

    I never cure ANY piece that I am not happy with. This means I am not putting cured clay into landfill but using and recycling raw clay as described above. If cracking occurs, I try to recycle elements or, if suitable, donate for use by community groups. And you should see my recycled garden art and polymer mosaics.

  4. I always cure pieces at the recommended temperature in an open, well-ventilated setting, separate to my workspace. Let’s call that outside!
  5. When sanding pieces, I dry sand over a paper towel and the dust is collected is thrown into landfill. I also take great care in the preparation of pieces PRIOR to curing so that I sand as little as possible. Shavings and drillings from carving etc are mixed with translucent clay to create speckled clay which I use in a recycled jewellery range.

    I am sure that more ways to help will occur to me over time and that this manifesto will evolve. Like me.

2 thoughts on “Should I make polymer clay jewellery in a world damaged by plastic?

  1. Kathleen Dustin

    An excellent, well thought out, authentic article by an artist conflicted by the sustainability of art making and it’s archival value for future generations. As Wendy points out, single use plastics are the problem. Plastic in general is an amazing material. It’s misuse is criminal and she takes great effort to use it responsibly.

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  2. Sabine

    I have written a long response to the Sammunat Nepal blog post to highlight the lack of knowledge that is sadly clouding some people’s perspectives when they criticize our art medium. I think you have expressed the essence of the use of polymer as an art medium better than I could have done. I feel that art and creativity are important for the collective soul and should never ever be compared to the mindless consumption and waste of precious and finite resources in unnecessary ways. keep creating and finding and giving enjoyment many t with your creativity. Hugs to all clayers from my studio.

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