Saturday 15 May 2021

Environmentally friendly model making?


Model making is probably something that isn't in the minds of most people I would imagine as being harmful to the environment but I think that its everyone's responsibility to reduce the amount of plastics and other harmful materials that we use and discard. The majority of models that are made today are from injection moulded plastic; a recyclable material and the majority of us use, but there are far more materials that we use as part of our hobby that could and do add to the waste that we produce every year. Don't worry I'm not about to say "how dare you!" and burst into a tirade of abuse and blame.

I as I am sure many of you have watched documentaries on Netflix such as "seaspircay" and "cowspiracy"; read one or two of the plethora of articles in print and online media and of course no one is safe from the climate "debate" on social media. You may have felt a little let down in the fact that no matter what we seem to do in terms of our environmental output there are far more damaging things currently being done to our planet than choosing not to use a plastic straw! What I try to adopt is an attitude of choosing to live a more sustainable way of life that will always make a difference no matter how small. I try not to preach to others, instead opting to trust that almost any sane person after weighing up the facts about the current rate of environmental damage (ignoring the more extreme fringe elements of either side of the argument). I suppose that what I am trying to say is that caring for the environment can be likened to the "broken window" theory that Police forces use; If you don't stop people for the little things; then that will encourage them to do worse things as time goes by. The majority of people however do not choose to break any windows as they know the difference between right and wrong. I have thought for a while about how to apply small changes to my model making and will discuss in this article how they have become "the normal way of doing things" for me in the hope that other model makers may adopt one or two of the things that I have began to do. More importantly the more of us who start to think in terms of the environment will show the industry that we want things done in a more sustainable way and that we would encourage and support companies that adopt a more environmentally sound way of producing the kits that we love making.

I think a sound approach to being a more environmentally friendly model maker is the 5 R's of waste management adopted as good practice across Europe:

  • Refuse 
  • Reduce
  • Re-use
  • Repurpose
  • Recycle 


This is a difficult one to start with as we all buy a model because we want to build it and in many cases we choose a particular company either because they are the only ones that make that particular model or because its a superior product. What we can do however is provide regular and encouraging feedback to these companies via their social media. Examples of feedback that I left are: 

"I love your latest line in models but instead of wasting all that ink and fancy packaging on a box I will throw away; why not just supply a poster to the shop that can be displayed near the boxes? That way when I dispose of the plain cardboard box it can be easily recycled and less energy has been expelled in creating it in the first place or; place the marketing images on your website and then ship in a plain box because I already know what I am buying after viewing the photos online."

Why is a box so important? If you think of the thousands of litres of ink that are required to produce box art and the chemicals, processes and energy required for an advertising tactic that really isn't really required today as we are enticed by products almost exclusively through social media, does it really matter that we don't have a pretty picture on a box we are going to throw away? Ask for model boxes to be of the "glue free" variety. again it does not seem like much but think of the thousands of litres of glue needed to produce the boxes and the harm caused in its production for a box that's single use. The absolute worst offender is the box that has been inked for box art, glued and then had a plastic coating applied to protect the box art. This "gloss like" finish may feel like a high quality product but it has effectively rendered that box as non-recyclable and therefore headed for landfill where the toxins from the ink leach into the water table and the plastic coating breaks down into micro plastics in the soil and gets washed into the water systems. One of the best model boxes that I have had to date was that of a WWII German Tank in 1/35 that never really left the drawing board in real life. The box was plain, non glued and had one small sticker on it detailing the model, company name and scale. I still happily bought it as I knew what I was getting from the website images but I now always look at their website first for new models because the product is good quality and supplied in this way.

You may be thinking that its the companies responsibility and therefore why should I bother asking them to change? The reality is that these are businesses and in order for them to thrive as a business they need customers. If they thought that their customers would still happily buy a product of theirs in a plain box rather than a glossy painted one, they may change their practices; however if they thought that they would lose customers because they are not producing a more environmentally friendly product they would definitely change. The whole point here is they will only change if they are sure that their customer base will support them and the only way for them to know that is if you tell them! The world wide use of social media has never made our ability to directly converse with large companies so easy. So far I have just talked about the box that the parts are supplied in; now imagine for an instant that instead of the clear single use plastic bags that the sprues are wrapped in, they were wrapped in thin paper bags instead that are easily recyclable and do not damage the environment as single use plastic does. Small changes no matter how insignificant in a single box to us; when one considers the entirety of the production run of the model that you have just opened then that is a hell of a lot of plastic saved and an opportunity to recycle what we do discard. I won't say refuse as some model companies work to very small margins and depend on modeller loyalty but please give feedback in a positive way to let them know that you as a customer would support positive change and would continue to buy from them if they took a more environmentally friendly stance in the production of their packaging.


This is achievable in so many ways and will depend completely on the individual model maker. I will simply say that I keep asking myself the same question; "do I need to use this?" What kind of things am I talking about? Do you use disposable paint cups? How many paper towels do you use? How much waste plastic do you throw away with each model made? What materials are you using to create your models/dioramas? What paints/thinners do you use? Finally: when was the last time I looked at alternative products to achieve the same effect? 

Some of the changes that I have made to date is that I now don't replace the "traditional" enamel paints that I have used since starting the hobby. I now use water based acrylic paints as replacements. These are far kinder to the environment in terms of their production and the need for harmful thinners is also removed. The additional plus side is the plastic bottles that the company I use is of a widely recycled plastic and can also be reused by a model maker if they wish. For me the ease of use of acrylics for airbrushing is unparalleled and there is next to nothing in terms of noxious fumes that are created with thinned enamels. I have stopped throwing away plastic sprues. and off cuts of styrene card I use for scratch building.  I now cut them into smaller rods and store them until needed to make some "sprue goo".

If you don't know what this is then its placing the sprue pieces in an old jam jar and pouring on some acetone. Place the lid on the jar and wait a few minutes. The plastic breaks down into a very versatile "goo" that can be used for a million and one applications from strengthening hidden joints on a model to creating sand bags to forming rubble/bricks in dioramas etc. Not only does this further stop plastic waste but it also saves you from buying other materials to do the same job. I have stopped using paper towels all together in favour of using rags. The humble rag has now a permanent place in my model making arsenal. No one in my family is allowed to throw away any ripped T shirt, jumper, underpants etc. Instead I spend a little time every few months cutting up these discarded clothes into rough squares of approximately 8"x 8". I have found that where I would use up three or four paper towels per painting session I now discard a rag to clothes recycling bins (the type where they shred the cloth and make blankets) about once a month. The beauty of a rag is that once the paint has dried on it then it can be used again and again. 

I closely examine the things that I throw away in normal household waste. Don't worry I'm not an "eco warrior" that wants to save everything; I'm talking here about things that have passed their useful life and may have another "life" in a model that I might make. Some examples of this are using old electronic components in a futuristic diorama such as my M.A.K dio. The re-fuelling post here is a capacitor, two types of heat-sink and copper wire salvaged from a computer monitor headed for the tip. Another example is keeping the wood lids from a tea/coffee/sugar set  that had seen better days. The lids that are made from wood are brilliant figure bases and will definitely feature in three figure sculpts at some point in the future. At the time of writing this article I have utilised them as temporary painting stands for my space shuttle model. Once completed I will then remove the tooth picks

and place them back in the draw for future use. I have lost count the number of times that I have used clear plastic from packaging as windows in a scratch build or the number of times that I have used aluminium sheet salvaged from a drinks can. The point that I am trying to make is that we throw away a multitude of model making materials every day and buy in model making materials instead! The money saved through salvage soon adds up to a pretty good sum that can be better spent on acrylic paints or a model (win win). 


This is something that I will admit is a difficult one for a model maker as once we build a model we tend to keep it on display or sell on to a collector. I think I have made a point of household item that I re-use or re-purpose in the previous paragraph. The two things that I can think of for this section that I do is to keep the models that I am not happy with or have no desire to display. You know the ones that I am talking about; its the model that you have spent hours on completing, that everything went wrong with and it still looks terrible! I have quite a few of these hidden in the dark recesses of my attic. Rather than throw them away I now keep them in mind as useful "burn-outs" or "rust hulks" for other dioramas. The beauty of this is that you get to destroy the crap paint job or remove the awful looking detail with rust effects. At the end of the day it only has to resemble that vehicle for it to be effective. In one of past articles here I talk about how I re-used a kubelwagen to great effect and give it another life as a burn out. Another example of my re-using an old model is my diving an old wreck diorama. Whenever I make groundwork for a diorama base using plaster or filler I always keep the remaining material that wasn't needed for the base and then crush/snap it up and keep it in a bag. This makes for great loose rubble and rough ground in either the diorama that I'm building or a future build. I sometimes wonder who buys the packs of rubble sold by some model making companies when essentially this is what they are made from! If you fancy trying your hand at making your own rubble then here is an article on how I do it.


I suppose the best example that I can think of for this section is the reason why I named my website; my scale model workbench. When I decided that I needed a more permanent solution to model making than my coffee table I decided that I didn't want to go out and buy a pre-made desk for model making. It wasn't because I thought they they were not fit for purpose (far from it) or because of the cost as I honestly regard them as a worthwhile investment. It was because of the intended location of my work bench; my living room. It had to serve my needs for a suitable work area and storage while still looking aesthetically pleasing when not in use. The solution I arrived at was a relatively useless piece of redundant furniture by modern standards, the writing bureau. It was inexpensive to buy from a reclamation yard, was well made and provided me with not only a project but the opportunity to make a bench that suited my every need. To date I still continually seek to improve and adapt the bench as I continue in my hobby and it has been an endless source of pleasure for me in knowing that I am working on something that I have made. If you'd like to see how I did it then here's how. link. 

Some final thoughts

I'll end by how I started by re-iterating that this article is not intended as a lecture on the evils of not recycling etc and if at any point you have felt that way then I sincerely apologise. My intention was just to demonstrate how I have made small but what I think are meaningful changes to how I practice my hobby. If I have made you re-assess even the smallest thing in your practice then that's great. I would also love to hear how you have altered the ways in which you conduct your hobby that have both improved your models and perhaps saved a little in terms of the environment. I intend on keeping this somewhat of a live document where I will update a relevant section as and when I find new ways of reducing my effects on the environment whilst I go about practising my hobby. Until next time; Happy model making!

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