Production: materials

Cultural activity not only encompasses a sphere of creation but also working with particular materials and products – complicated logistics of interrelated elements which require planning and concrete decision-making. In the current model of operations, we usually consider the aesthetic and financial criteria. However, the climate crisis necessitates a revision of these assumptions and requires adding another important factor: environmental impact. As far as sustainable management of resources is concerned, the Polish cultural sector is underperforming. A lot of resources prepared in laborious production processes are used on a one-off basis, without the vision of ever using them again, without ensuring the ecological qualities of raw materials, without thinking of cooperation with other entities in that respect. A short supply chain is rarely promoted, even though it is one of the most important elements of sustainable production. That is why change is so important – in terms of individual creative practices and internal policies of institutions, as well as relationships with producers, suppliers and service providers – in order for cultural production to have a chance of becoming a more environmentally friendly area.


Make a first step and revise your current processes associated with the production and use of materials. Think how to reduce commissioning and production of new things, how to reuse the resources you already have, how to recycle them, how to avoid production traps and which products you should avoid in order not to produce unnecessary waste. Being aware of your decision-making process is key to further stages of sustainable production.

Make a list of things which make up the production process. What do you have to switch on, build, transport? Where do you have to commute to? Provide appropriate sound and lighting? Record, order? What products? What materials, tools, equipment? When you finish, the list will be quite long. Remember that none of these things appear from ‘nowhere’ and go ‘somewhere’. Analyse how all of this is going to impact the environment.
3Rs for production (+ 1)
When producing a theatre play, a concert or an exhibition you deal with a large number of materials and have influence on decisions concerning power consumption, purchasing, raw materials and transportation. In order to make decisions for more sustainability, follow the ‘3Rs’ principle: reduce , reuse and recycle. In this context, it is necessary to add one more ‘R’ – repair.

Reduce. The most environmentally friendly resolution we may take at the stage of planning is: I shall not order and produce unnecessary things. There are already so many resources in circulation that we need to first learn how to use them. Whenever possible, look for ways for reducing raw materials being used. Avoid materials which would be difficult to recycle. Reduce the amount of material necessary to build a set or exhibition infrastructure. Instead of buying equipment, rent it from other organisations. If purchasing equipment is necessary, consider sharing costs with other institutions. Pay attention to energy-saving solutions – switch off and reduce unnecessary lighting, use energy-efficient LED lamps to reduce power consumption.

> Throughout the 2019/2020 season, the Drama Theatre in Wałbrzych was using the same modular set designed by Karolina Mazur and modified it to suit the requirement of particular plays. The set consisted of blocks made of plywood, which could be configured and complemented with additional elements: props, fabric, furniture.

Reuse. Check what your institution has in store, consider how you can reuse your resources. Reuse and recycle before producing. Insofar as these postulates are relatively easy to implement in smaller-scale activities e.g. by using paper or recycled packaging during workshops, larger items or equipment may pose a problem. If you work for a big institution, sometimes you do not even know if the material or equipment you need is available in store. Therefore, seek better communication with other departments. Together, prepare a catalogue of materials ‘for general use’ which the whole organisation could access and which would be regularly updated. Remember – before going shopping, check what your organisation has to offer. Also, act similarly in the case of invited artists – encourage them to reuse the resources you already have.
Many cultural institutions face the challenge of insufficient storage facilities. This is the reason why perfectly reusable materials are disposed of, as there is nowhere to store them. Avoid such practices – they are wasteful and non-ecological.  Minor elements of the equipment which the institution no longer deems useful can be shared with local organisations and partners or disposed of during garage sales. This will allow you to gain some space in your storage, enter into cooperations with local foundations, associations, cafés; and get to know your neighbours. (See: GOOD NEIGHBOURLINESS) 

> Case: Garage sale of items from Emilia’s museum storage, source: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

A bigger challenge to institutions is posed by large fixed assets, such as exhibition structures and set designs, which are painstakingly produced but often destroyed soon after the project finishes as they were custom-made for one-off events. Try planning to use the same architecture or set design for a few seasons or at least reuse and recycle their parts. If elements of set design are of particular financial value, organise an auction and donate the proceeds to a charitable organisation or fund programmed activity at your institution.
> Case: Charity auction of chairs from the “Estranged: March ’68 and Its Aftermath” exhibition, source: POLIN Museum.
Think about creating a consortium of different organisations with common storage facilities and common use of resources. Of course, many procedures that are possible to implement by NGOs are more difficult to carry out by public institutions due to binding regulations. As a result, some institutions do not even look for such solutions quoting public finance discipline. It is worth remembering that public institutions have an option to sell unnecessary equipment as the so-called ‘redundant assets’. Disposal is not the only solution, so consider introducing items into circulation giving them a ‘second life’. Warsaw’s Culture Cooperative was set up by an initiative of district cultural centres, associates, active local institutions, NGOs, informal initiatives and any willing persons. It shows that this sort of cooperation is real and that it is worth trying to overcome formal barriers. The Cooperative develops the idea of freecycling and sharing resources that are donated to the common pool e.g. venues for activities, equipment and materials with various entities. The only criteria are for the events to be neighbourly, open and non-commercial. They are guided by the idea of ‘sharing’ rather than ‘exchanging’.

> Read more: > Culture Cooperative: Borrow and Organise; source:
> Exchanging and sharing may take various forms. For instance, Swedish organisation Retoy promotes the idea of sustainable attitude to consumption among children and parents. It develops a platform for exchanging toys, gifts toys to children in need or recycles toys in its educational lab. Read more: Retoy

Repair. One of the themes within reusing is repairing. A lot of items, e.g. appliances working slowly, an old kettle, slow computers are often prematurely considered inefficient and just disposed of. Sometimes they are thrown away without attempting to service them. However, a lot of these items may still serve. In refraining from repairing we unnecessarily lose lots of useful resources.
> Platform21, a Dutch design organisation, has made repair its motto. According to the designers, in contemporary culture recycling is overappreciated, while repair is underappreciated – both as a creative, cultural and economic power and in the context of its environmental potential. Read Repair Manifesto, source: Platform 21
 > A thriving organisation from Catalonia associates local groups, businesses and organisations which wish to implement the idea of a closed circuit in the area of ICT. The organisation operates on an open-source basis and its main goal is preventing premature recycling. Its website contains interesting publications, including a report entitled ‘Barriers to reuse electronics coming from the public sector’. See: Ereuse/Publications
Recycle. At this stage, we bid our farewell to the item in question. The raw material from which it was made will be used to create something new. However, it is worth remembering that the key to a high level of raw material recovery is proper sorting of waste. In the creative sector, recycling may not only be useful but it can become a practice for creative activity. Looking for creative ways of recycling waste and re-introducing it into circulation in cooperation with artists could become a permanent fixture of an institution’s programme and manifest on various scales – from the ‘iconic’ bag made from banners to bigger projects. For instance, theatres tend to increasingly recycle elements of stage design from their earlier productions. More and more projects aim to be based on reused and recycled materials. Abroad even buildings are made of recycled materials, including buildings  of cultural institutions!

> See how artists process their materials in a non-obvious way: The Arts and Sustainability: Renewable Materials from Unexpected Places, source: Medium
> Read about buildings from recycled materials: Quality architecture from waste. Waste as a new building material, source: Bryła

Communicate. If you do use recycled materials to create your stage design, use modular furniture which can be used multiple times or reuse the architecture of your exhibitions – communicate this through exhibition notice boards, let the audience know about it. Your practices may inspire others and the pro-environmental aspect of the project may constitute an additional incentive for the audience to visit your production. 

Problematic plastic
There is one type of material which should be particularly avoided as far as possible – plastics. However, it is not so easy to avoid it. Plastics are used in the products of practically every sector. Plastic’s immense popularity is associated with its usefulness for people: it extends food storage period, it is light and universal. However, as a result we have become hostages to the millions of tonnes of plastic, which is deposited in the soil, water and in landfills. According to the Mare Foundation, if we do not change our attitude, by 2050 plastic in seas and oceans will outweigh fish.
How do plastics affect the climate? Conventional plastic is made of fossil fuels. Mining, production and transport of petroleum and natural gas contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases. Plastic takes about 500 years or more to degrade. When it degrades, it degrades, it separates into microplastics, which are currently practically impossible to remove. It is sometimes the case that plastics contain chemical substances which are harmful to the environment and human health.
It’s a myth that every type of plastic can be recycled. There are six basic types of  plastic, each with different properties, and only a few have a recycling potential dependent on many external factors (e.g. profitability, durability, availability of recycling facilities in a given country). There is also a seventh type – the so-called other plastic, which is non-recyclable. As can be seen, plastics are not equal. There are also more and less harmful varieties, e.g. products containing toxic bisphenol A (BPA) should be avoided at all cost. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE, 2) and Polypropylene (PP, 5) are highly recyclable. The most popular type, PET (1), used for making drinks bottles is recyclable but only under certain conditions. Its recovery rate is currently just 20 percent (compared to over 90 percent for glass), because recycling it is economically unjustified and the end product is of insufficient quality (PET quality deteriorates with each recycling process). Products marked as ‘compostable’ cannot be placed in an ordinary composter (they require industrial composters), while a lot of plastic products marked as ‘biodegradable’ degrade just as long as standard plastics, and separate into microplastics.  Although not made from fossil fuels, bioplastics have a lot of properties in common with standard plastics – e.g. they absorb toxic substances like sponge and can easily be transferred to various ecosystems, polluting them. Plastic waste is so ubiquitous in the environment today that it has been suggested that we might regard plastic as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene Era.
As far as possible, let’s avoid contributing to this ‘deposit’. Despite appearances to the contrary, we have significant influence on this – based on UN data, nearly 40 percent of all globally-produced plastics are packaging materials. They leave behind plastic production associated with home furnishings, the building industry and electronics. And since it is us – the consumers – who decide about packaging, let us choose consciously and with our choices stimulate changes in the production sector.

> Read more: Plastics and climate, source: Nauka o klimacie (Climate Science) 
Tool kits associated with materials
If you need concrete advice on what to pay attention to in order to green the production processes and raw materials you use, we recommend reading the following publications and websites:

> For museum specialists – a guide for sustainable action while packing, storing and transporting objects: Waste & Materials: Collections Care: Packing, Storage & Transport, source: KiCulture
> For people building sets, exhibition walls or working with fabrics, costumes, drapery, furniture, props; lighting and sound engineers: Julie’s Bicycle Practical Guide, source: Julie’s Bicycle
> For those looking for a database of ecological materials: Rematerialise, source: Kingston University
> For those interested in creating new non-toxic materials: #1: Materiom – a platform on making biodegradable materials from locally sourced biomass, created by an international community of designers, scientists, engineers and artists. #2: The Future Materials Bank – an internet platform for artists, aimed at gathering ‘future materials’, i.e. alternative, biodegradable materials, which could be used by artists instead of materials that harm the environment. 


Familiarise yourself with the idea of a circular economy and the resulting philosophy of sustainable design. It is worth testing this model right away, gradually implementing its assumptions and mapping out further possibilities. The assumptions of a ‘closed circuit’ concern holistic change, remodelling the production and consumption process. It is a difficult and long-term task. Check what others have managed to achieve in this respect and assess what you can implement. Here, knowledge is built on extending and deepening possible practices together.
Closed loop

The model of a closed-loop economy (also called circular economy) is an attempt to get away from the linear scheme characterized by mining – production – consumption – disposal. This model has caused resources to gradually run out and has led to the current ecological and climate crisis. Hence the calls for categorical change in favour of a closed loop, with material being used as in the natural environment, where nothing is lost in the circulation of matter. According to this concept, we do not produce waste but raw materials and things which can be reused or passed on. The chain starts with design and is followed by production, packaging, delivery, storage, distribution, use and disposal. The aim of the circular economy is to maintain the highest quality and functionality of products, materials and resources for as long as possible by constant regeneration cycles of recycling and renewal. This is a complex process and closing of the loop (or opening it) is influenced by each and every one of us by taking decisions associated with production or purchasing (or refraining from purchasing) of particular products and services. The basic aim of the closed-loop model is not only satisfying the needs of humans but also a fair division of resources without abusing the natural world and the biosphere.

> It is interesting to read ‘Material Flow Analysis’, in which DGTL festival treated its own event as an example of a ‘closed-loop’ event, testing how it could modify its production processes in subsequent editions in an attempt to implement the circular model > DGTL/ Material Flow Index 
Sustainable design

Principles. Sustainable design takes the whole cycle of a product into account, from the beginning to the end (cradle to cradle), and each stage in a product’s life includes ecological criteria. Although the principles of sustainable design may seem to be a restrictive necessity, in reality it offers an opportunity to make higher quality products and supports creativity and innovative thinking.

Below you will find a few simple aspects, although quite demanding in practice, which should be taken into account with sustainable design:

– fewer materials (before you purchase something new, think about reusing the existing resources);
– ease of recycling (easy dismantling, option to separate materials)
– type of material (it is best if there is one type of material or various biodegradable and natural materials);
– durability (maximum product life);
– multi-purposefulness (ability to be reused, repaired, multiple applications, recyclability)
– efficiency (adjustability to function and scale, e.g. designing exposition infrastructure for a – touring exhibition so that it fits in the smallest means of transport possible, can be reused and efficiently stored);
– innovativeness (ability to optimise the product);
– cohesive eco-message (propagating the idea of sustainable design through a product which validates the idea). 

These general principles are accompanied by more detailed regulations, which result from the standards associated with introducing sustainable products on the market. The main certificates and standards for this area worth remembering include Cradle to Cradle (C2C), ISO 14062 and ISO 14001.
Transferability. Sustainable design translates into subsequent elements of the product cycle: sustainable packaging (minimising packaging, ethical production, recyclability), supply chain (shortening of the transport route, using local manufacturers and suppliers), storage, distribution – to utilisation and disposal (as long as the product cannot be reused after completing the circle). In order to take care of these aspects, it is worth investigating the process of utilising materials and services within your own organization – what ‘comes in’, what ‘comes out’, who makes decisions about what to order or buy, when, to what extent and how it is used, plus what happens next. Pay attention to the characteristics of individual contractors, service providers or producers – and choose those who can demonstrate an appropriate environmental policy. It is worth applying a clause on sustainable environmental and social development in public procurement, emphasising mandatory requirements, e.g. using local resources or products from sustainable sources. Similar provisions should also be included in contracts.
Ecological certificates are also an important factor confirming the compliance of products or services with ecological standards. However, since there are many certification systems on the market and sometimes you can fall under the spell of a marketing eco-stamp rather than real, reliable verification criteria, it is important to remain vigilant and, if necessary, resort to proven and reliable certificates (example list below). It is also a good idea to refer to responsible purchasing guides in order to choose brands that have a positive impact on people, the environment and the planet.
Another important aspect of ‘translating’ the principles of the closed loop into practice is constantly strengthening the ability to use materials responsibly (how to choose, what questions to ask, how to support the idea of resource circulation) among the staff, artists, suppliers and the audience. Internal training may serve this function inside organisations, while workshops associated with repair, renewal, regeneration and recycling instead of buying new may fulfil that role for our audience.
> Familiarise yourself with examples of eco-certificates
> Ethical Consumer Guide
> Eco consumer guide, source: Fundacja Kupuj Odpowiedzialnie (Buy Responsibly Foundation)
> Get inspired: read the Lessons from the Great Recovery 2012-2016 report demonstrating how to apply the principles of the circular economy to designing and production, source: RSA
> A lot of valuable advice on eco-design, model of circular economy and tools for applying it in the creative sector can be found on these websites: Sustainability Guide, Circular Design Guide


This is the right time for you and other institutions to jointly think about how to ensure circulation of the materials you already possess, that is how to cooperate, share materials and equipment and create a common repository for cultural productions. 

Towards co-sharing
An intra-institutional cultural cooperative? A central warehouse? It sounds like a utopia. However, if we were to ignore the first signs of resistance and thought about it on a more sustainable scale –  that of a housing estate, district or a whole city – the idea begins to sound more interesting and possibly quite real.  The examples of cooperative and co-sharing initiatives provided in this guide show that creating a common resource, also with institutional entities, is possible. Operating models may vary. Institutions may open their storage facilities to the needs of local artists. Institutions of a similar type (museums, theatres, cinemas, etc.) may attempt to create an exchange and cooperation network associated with circulating resources. ‘Storage’ does not necessarily have to mean a physical space; it may be manifested in a virtual space, as the example of Spółdzielnia Kultury Culture Cooperative from Warsaw demonstrates. There are many possibilities. It is important for the cultural sector to come together against wasting resources and create systems for cooperating over sharing goods. Then, single-use architecture may get a chance to become multiple-use architecture, unnecessary furniture may be put into circulation and unused equipment hidden in the warehouse behind cardboard boxes for years may finally be used again.
An extended practice of co-sharing resources would not only be a relief for the environment, an ethical shift towards things, but also an incentive to question the current ownership-based model of culture. It is worth asking: why own when you can borrow? Why throw away when you can give it to someone else? Why keep when you can circulate? Looking at the practices of others that have been proven to be effective makes thinking in this direction even more attractive.

> Get inspired: Materials for the Arts is a partnership programme of New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and Departments of Sanitation and of Education, one of the largest creative reuse centres in the US. It collects a wide range of materials, making them available to local companies, communities, fashion houses, TV productions, corporations for reusing. Resources which include anything and everything from rugs to toothbrushes are made available free of charge to creatives, schools, civic organisations, city agencies. MfA promotes the idea of reuse, releasing into circulation hundreds of tonnes of materials every year.