Dale Chihuly's big footprint

Turns out, glass-blowing has a very big carbon footprint. A single studio can release more carbon than 100 households.
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Dale Chihuly glass in Oklahoma City

Turns out, glass-blowing has a very big carbon footprint. A single studio can release more carbon than 100 households.

While we debate the concept of a new Dale Chihuly glass temple at Seattle Center, here's another thing for a city striving for carbon-neutrality: Just how green is glass blowing?

Not very, it turns out. There are many environmental hazards in the hot shop, from handling toxic chemicals to dealing with glass dust silicates that can cause lung disease. Tacoma's Museum of Glass outlines some of these hazards on its website. But increasingly, glass studios are having to deal with the fact that their carbon footprints are enormous and the cost of keeping the furnaces going, in dollars and in carbon emissions, is significant. In an article in the Spring 2010 issue of Urban Glass Art Quarterly titled "Can glass go green?" editor Andrew Page outlines the challenge:

Rising fuel costs and a growing consensus that global warming is a real threat have set the stage for fresh approaches in a field that is quite possibly the most energy-intensive medium for the creation of art.

Fresh approaches means ways of not consuming so much natural gas and other fuels to keep hot shops running. Page writes that some glass studios are finding greener ways, such as the Northwest's Pilchuck Glass School, founded by Dale Chihuly, where furnaces are being upgraded and students taught to do more design work on computers and with models, when the furnaces aren't running. Nevertheless, glass studios burn a lot of fuel and belch carbon into the atmosphere in seeking to produce beautiful baubles for well-heeled collectors. According to Urban Glass, a rough carbon calculation that doesn't take into account a full commercial studio's operation pencils this way:

Figuring your carbon footprint is a simple equation. Multiply the therms listed on your gas bill by 12.0593. That is the number of pounds of carbon dioxide that is emitted as a result of burning one therm of natural gas. Then divide this sum by 2,205 to convert it into metric tons. A single metric ton of CO2 is what a car emits in about two months of driving, says Lisa A. Moore, a scientist with Environmental Defense. While equivalents vary, there is no question that glass studios contribute significant amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, a single large studio easily releasing the same amount of carbon as over 100 households. With two 1,000-pound day tanks, and seven glory holes, a public-access glass studio could easily produce 480 metric tons of carbon per year, or the equivalent annual output of approximately 70 cars, and that does not include the carbon generated by the use of electric annealers and other equipment.

A hundred households? Sounds like a suburban subdivision. Seventy cars? Sounds like a small fleet of commuters. Seattle and the region are home to numerous glass studios, from Pilchuck and the Glass Museum to Chihuly's prolific shop on Lake Union. According to the Seattle Convention and Vistor's Bureau, our "Metronatural" city has more glass blowing hot shops than any city in the world except Venice, Italy. One estimate puts the number at around 90 in Seattle.

That's a lot of greenhouse gas for art's sake.

Seattle city council president Richard Conlin is reportedly enthused about the new Chihuly complex at Seattle Center, calling it an "extraordinary opportunity," but he's also the one leading the charge against carbon emissions, the ones created to make Chihuly's glass works in the first place. The proposed glass house would be a monument to what can be produced if you burn enough fossil fuel in pursuit of a kind of commercial, artistic alchemy, but symbolically at least, doesn't it rather undercut the city's green messaging?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.