Are you considering sustainability and environmental impact in your art and clinical practice? I believe that it is imperative that we all be more aware of this in all areas of our life, including our work as creative therapists.
This past summer I decided that it was time to commit to doing more to be eco-aware in my practice. I have always recycled at home and work. And have often used repurposed materials in art – magazines for collage, interesting containers and pieces, book pages, etc – and sourced gently used books and toys for the office. But I knew there was still more that I could be doing if I took the time to think things through, research some better options, and change a few habits. My own life and workplace are still not perfect, of course, but I hope this post inspires you to take a few more steps toward sustainable living and work.
17 ideas to be a more eco-minded therapist (and artist)…
1. Start recycling – If you aren’t already recycling in your office, make a commitment to doing so. Creative projects can generate a lot of scrap paper that should be recycled, not to mention the other paper and plastic waste that comes up in our daily work. As there is no on-sight recycling at the locations where I go to facilitate art therapy groups, I have started to bring along paper grocery bags. I can collect all the recyclables generated during group and easily take them with me to put in my home collection bin
2. Recycle right and recycle more – Much of our art supply waste cannot be recycled in typical city recycling pickup. Items like markers, glue bottles, paint tubes, etc. actually cause problems when put into a typical single-stream recycling. Instead of just throwing them away, look into a program like Terracycle to recycle more of your art waste – https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/zero_waste_boxes/art-supplies. Another option is to check with your local school to see if they participate in Crayola’s ColorCycle and drop off your used markers for recycling.
3. Source and use art materials that would otherwise go to waste – Search your area for a resource center that collects and redistributes partially used art supplies. In Austin we have Austin Creative Reuse, which collects a variety of materials that can be used for art and crafts. Austin Resource Recovery also set up the DRAW (Diverting Resources for Artistic Works) program to make gently used art materials available for reuse instead of sending them to the landfill. These programs and centers often have markers, pencils, stamps, paper, yarn, fabric, and lots of other fun crafty things. (Do you have this type of program in your area? Drop the name, location, and link in the comments below to spread the word to others.)
4. Be a conscious consumer – When buying new, consider the environmental impact of those products. Whenever possible buy recycled, especially the paper for your office (drawing paper, paper towels, etc.) For other products, look into a sustainably sourced option. Look into the environmental impact of the companies that you support when buying colored pencils, paint, etc. and try to support companies that are working on environmental responsibility (Crayola, for example, shares current green initiatives on their website, such as solar energy and reforested wood.) For other suggested products, Jerry’s Artarama has put together a list of eco-friendly art supplies.
5. Be responsible with your paint use – Whether you’re using acrylic or oil-based paint, leftover paint, paint water, and solvents should all be disposed of properly. Rinsing it down the drain can be a source of water pollution, and even throwing it into landfill trash can contribute to toxic leaching. I won’t go into the details in this post, so I recommend doing your own research and making sure that you are handling your particular art waste in the most responsible way. I’ll admit that this is one area that I need to make some changes in, something that I realized as I did some research for this post. In my practice, I use acrylic, tempera, and watercolor paints, so I have not had to deal with more hazardous materials like solvents. I am not in a setting that has an art sink, so I have always used disposable paint pallets (see tip 8) to minimize the paint getting washed down the drain. However, I did not stop to consider that even dumping just the brush rinse water was essentially dumping plastic particles down the drain, which eventually leads to more microplastics in our water. The safest means of disposal is to turn in all paint-related waste to your local hazardous waste. I will definitely be implementing some changes at my office to collect paint water for more responsible disposal.
6. Start office composting – Use products that can be composed instead of sent to a landfill and set up a compost collection container at your office. At my shared office suite – North Austin Therapy – I have set up a compost container, lined with compostable bags so that I can easily take the compost home, and switched all of our coffee pods and disposable paper/plastic items over to compostable versions.
7. Switch to biodegradable glitter – As we’ve become increasingly aware, plastic waste is having a big impact on our environment. Glitter is one source of microplastic pollution that art therapists and play therapists should definitely be aware of. Unfortunately, many of the versions of sustainable glitter versions available online are more expensive than traditional glitter, but it’s worth it if we consider the impact. A few suggestions for purchasing the glitter include Three Mamas in Australia, EcoEquinox from the UK, Plur Vision from the US, and Universal Soul from the US. (A big thank you to the fabulous art therapist Liz Fitzgerald from Sydney for telling me about biodegradable glitter.)
8. Reuse containers and lids for painting and other art projects – Whenever possible, steer clear of single-use, disposable products. However, as I mentioned above, rinsing paint off of reusable pallets can be problematic. My solution has been to save large plastic lids (like from large yogurt containers), wash them off, then take them to work to use as disposable paint pallets. At the outpatient programs, I have brought in some re-usable plastic cups to use for paint water in order to replace the throw away Styrofoam cups that patients were previously using. I also wash off some of the larger plastic takeout containers to use for kids to store small sculptures at the office or use to transport their creations home. (Art Therapist Jody Pittner of Truly Connected Counseling and Art Therapy also offered this suggestion, saying that she bring containers from home for paint water and then takes home plastics for recycling.)
9. Upcycle boxes – Have a variety of repurposed boxes for different projects. I usually have small jewelry boxes, shoe boxes, and sizes in between. Boxes can be used for an inside vs. outside art therapy directive, to create “safe space” homes for small animal figures, or decorated for a sensory soothing box or coping kit.
10. Turn bottles into sensory or calming jars –Save single serving plastic drink bottles and nut butter jars for glittery calming jars, sensory bottles, or musical shakers.
11. Join your area Buy Nothing group on Facebook – The Buy Nothing Project supports sharing and receiving through a hyper-local gift-economy. When you have extra things that you no longer need, you can post and pass them on to a neighbor. My local Buy Nothing group has been a source of various things for my office – art and craft supplies, magazines for collage, toys for play therapy, books, and even a lamp. The primary purpose of the Buy Nothing Project is to build neighborhood connections, but it’s also a great way to support minimalism, sustainability, and a circular economy.
12. Save cardboard for artwork – In my child and teen art therapy groups, the kids love to have large pieces of cardboard to use to paint on since we don’t have canvas. At my office (and at home with my son), cardboard is often cut up and assembled into interesting creations. I like having a mix of large pieces of corrugated cardboard and more lightweight cardboard, like cereal boxes. It’s also great to have a few tubes on hand from toilet paper, paper towels, and gift wrap.
13. Re-use interesting packaging materials – Lots of “trash” can be re-used in art projects. In our household, some of these things go in my son’s “art box” for later creativity, some come to my office, and some get saved for the kid’s maker space at our local STEAM-focused museum. In addition to diverting waste from landfills, I love to see the creative and unique ideas that are sparked by these non-traditional items. Some things to consider saving include bottle caps, mesh bags, berry containers, bubble wrap, ribbons/strings, mint tins, and even unusually shaped pieces of packing foam. I even brought in a big bag of old plastic film canisters that I got from a neighbor and have been amazed at all the different ways they have been used.
14. Re-use stretched canvas – Pickup stretched canvas artwork that would otherwise get tossed in the trash, paint over it with gesso, then let it be used in art therapy or for your own artwork. I have done this with a couple of my old pieces from college that I no longer wanted. You can also pick up canvas artwork from thrift stores and garage sales to paint over. Artist Beth Palmer shared an example with me of how she uses re-purposed canvas in her art, as well as other diverted materials like doilies and fabric.
15. Altered books and journals – When setting up a new art journal for yourself or clients, you can repurpose books or get discarded notebooks from a reuse center. The cover can be decorated and customized as part of the process and the existing pages can create a unique and interesting background to be incorporated into the art.
16. Donate to a good cause – Set aside some of your revenue to support a cause that you care about. As therapists we strive to make a positive impact through our direct work with clients, but we can also make an impact through our financial resources. While there are many organizations and concerns that are worthy of our support, if you are being mindful of environmental concerns, you could support nature restoration, protection of vulnerable areas, or purchase carbon offsets. (Thanks to artist/educator Rachel Rose for sharing this suggestion on my Facebook page.)
17. Electronic paperwork – If you have control over your paperwork and office procedures, try to go paperless. Many EHR platforms make it simple to keep electronic notes, as well as allow us to have clients fill out intake paperwork electronically and securely. Although I currently do electronic notes, changing over to electronic intake forms is on my action list.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, some of these steps are still a work in progress for me. Implementing changes can be challenging and even time-consuming (it’s ridiculous how much time I spent comparing different biodegradable glitters online), but I believe that our environmental impact is an important piece of our work to consider as creative therapists.
P.S. – Although my posts sometimes contain affiliate links, this post is almost entirely affiliate link free (with the exception of the PlurVision glitter on Amazon). All products and companies are suggestions based on my own research and are offered in the hopes of making it a bit easier for you to make a change.
Some other resources:
“12 Ways Artists Can ‘Go Greener’” – Diana Moses Botkin for Dick Blick
Going Green: Environmentally Friendly Practices for Artists – Agora Gallery
Paint Water Disposal – Clive 5 Art (for acrylic paint)
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! Do you have a tip or environmental concern that I missed? Do you know of a local source for reused art materials in your area that you can share with us?
Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT-S, ATR-BC is an art therapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, teens, and families. For more information about individual therapy, child and teen counseling, family therapy, teen group therapy, and art therapy services, please visit: www.therapywithcarolyn.com.
This blog is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health conditions. All directives, interventions, and ideas should be used by qualified individuals within the appropriate bounds of their education, training, and scope of practice. Information presented in this blog does not replace professional training in child and family therapy, art therapy, or play therapy. Art therapy requires a trained art therapist.
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