After meeting in art school, Lynden Over and his partner, Christine Robb, had invested years in building a bespoke glass studio in Taupo, New Zealand. Located amidst the spectacular natural landscape along the northern shore of the largest lake in New Zealand, Lava Glass is the result of a lifetime of love and work to create a combined glass studio, cafe, and sculpture garden. Over and Robb’s work is an homage to the humbling majesty and green splendor of the rich ecosystem in which they live. But it was their intense love of nature that began to gnaw at them, causing Over to be unable to sleep at night for the carbon that he knew his glassblowing was adding to the atmosphere. He pondered shutting it all down, unable to continue to contribute to climate change, even as his glass art celebrated the environment.
“Do we give up the thing that we love doing most for the sake of our environment?” he asked his partner. Having invested years building his dream facility from the ground up, he spent an increasing amount of time thinking about tearing it all down.
When they met as students, Over and Robb not only found each other through their love of glass, they also found their life’s work in environmental sustainability and preservation. Deciding to take on the challenge of continuing to work with glass but reducing their carbon output to zero Over and Robb were able to make Lava Glass the world’s first carbon zero certified glass blowing institution.
Taupō, the town where they live and work, actually sits on the shore of a lake formed by the caldera of a supervolcano that is known to have caused two of the most violent eruptions in Earth’s recent geological history. There is something to be found here in the story of the Taupō volcano, the power of natural processes, and even the romantic notion that volcanoes are the original artists, raining down volcanic glass with every eruption. Existing in this type of ecology and surrounded by the Oscar winning landscapes of New Zealand, Lynden Over and Christine Robb drew inspiration from their surroundings in all of their glass artworks. Their home was their muse.
Being served by it and expressing their love for it through art was one thing, but the pair were constantly and increasingly plagued by concerns about their own effects on the environment they lived in. So much so that Lynden was driven to suggest giving up their life’s work in order to decrease their carbon footprint and leave behind something cleaner and better for future generations. However, their love of glass was not so easily forgotten. Instead of leaving it behind altogether, they started thinking about ways to change the glass working game that would inspire change in glass practices everywhere, starting in their own hometown.
New Zealand is set to become carbon neutral by the year 2050. Over and Robb have raced ahead of their countrymen to not only become carbon neutral, but to establish environmental and ecological programs that will benefit their community far into the future. Using New Zealand’s clean green electricity and committing to thoroughly changing their crafting, shipping, and recycling processes, the pair have been able to go much farther than just offsetting their carbon emissions. They also went the distance to educate themselves on the ecology of their surroundings, invest in the preservation of New Zealand’s natural wonders, and actively work with their community to better their environmental initiatives.
UrbanGlass was able to speak to Lynden and Christine about their journey as artists and environmentalists.
Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: Let’s start at the very beginning! What is Lava Glass? How did it start and where is it now?
Christine Robb: We’ve grown over the 19 years we’ve been running it. Taupo, it’s a beautiful idyllic lakeside town, it’s the biggest lake in the southern hemisphere and we moved there and established Lava Glass in 2002 and we set it up because Lynden had been working with glass for about 6 or 7 years and he just needed a studio with full time access to be able to really develop his really beautiful iconic range of art glass which is sort of all about the unique and beautiful landscape New Zealand has. We’ve got really lovely rugged landscapes so we try to put them into our art works.
We both did meet at art school and we’re both passionate about glass and Lynden has gone on to become the glass artist and I work with Lynden on all of the design work together; I do a bit of assisting.
Glass: What got you interested in sustainability? What has the journey been like?
Lynden Over: We've always been interested in environmental issues and all that, but it takes quite a long time for it to seep into your consciousness that everything you do everyday sticks. Turning the studio into a carbon neutral studio, that's been a bit over two years, maybe three years now.
Robb: I think it's also that we make art about our environment and we look at the gorgeous landscape in New Zealand and the biodiversity and it just struck us that we’re making art about this amazing planet and yet, unfortunately, we love glass and we’re very passionate about glass but unfortunately glass art is a really energy intensive craft. And we were busy doing our artworks and loving doing it and there was sort of a dawning moment when Lynden came to me one day and said I think we should stop blowing glass; he wanted to stop blowing glass because of the damage it was doing and the carbon we were releasing in our studio. We had a huge talk and discussion.
Over: It was quite dramatic.
Robb: Yeah. It was like, “Do we give up the thing that we love doing the most for the sake of our environment?” And yes, we were prepared to, but then we started thinking maybe we can change the way we work and maybe it would be a good thing for other glass artists to know that we can change to being a carbon zero studio.
Glass: Can you talk about your collaboration with Toitu Envirocare and becoming certified as a CarbonZero organization?
Over: Well, it started before we got involved with the certification. We started looking at what we were doing and how we could change things.
Robb: We first thought, well we counted up our carbon output on the most basic calculator online and we thought okay, 70 tonnes of carbon and one tree equals one tonne and we thought, easy, we’ll plant 70 trees a year and it’ll be all good. So we went and we purchased a thousand beautiful little native trees and planted them on our site. And they’re actually about two meters tall now, they’re really really cute. But there was actually a lot more involved in that, because you can’t just offset and plant trees and keep doing what you’re doing so there was that realization that we had to do a lot more than just plant trees.
Over: Yeah, so we started with replacing our first vehicle with an electric car and then we sort of started thinking about maybe getting someone else involved who can certify and measure and get us down this journey with a lot more accuracy.
Robb: Once you start delving in a little bit into how can we be carbon zero, it becomes a lot more involved than planting a few trees so that’s when we started talking to Toitu which is an amazing company in New Zealand that are working really hard to get companies involved in not just offsetting but they come in and measure every single emission that we make - not just carbon but all the other greenhouse emissions as well.
Over: They count all your, like all your refrigerators as well - it’s a very thorough thing. We had to measure the miles that every single parcel goes because we ship all over the world.
Robb: So we ship out our beautiful artworks all over the world. And that was actually one of our biggest carbon costs was our shipping costs so that was something that we didn’t even think of. So they’ve got us to measure and mitigate. They really helped our work in environmental issues.
Over: They’re internationally recognized and we wanted somebody that was going to be serious about it.
Robb: They use science based tools and check the evidence that you’re doing what you’re saying you’re doing.
Glass: You’ve switched over to electric furnaces instead of the traditional fuel burning ones - can you talk about the big switch and New Zealand’s clean green electricity? What were some obstacles you faced or new discoveries you made?
Robb: I think about 80-percent of our emissions came from our gas burning furnace. So that was the easiest and biggest thing - you basically take the lowest hanging fruit first, so switching from a gas powered furnace to an electric furnace was the first, especially because in New Zealand we’ve got green electricity.
Over: I think 80-percent of our electricity is renewable through geothermal and hydro methods so that seemed the most sensible way to go.
Robb: So thanks very much to the Wet Dog furnace that we imported from America - it was a huge commitment and we’re still a small business and Lynden used to make his own little gas furnaces for around $10,000 a year. This Wet Dog furnace was about $130,000 New Zealand but by the time we got it here and had it all installed, so it was a real commitment. But that’s reduced our carbon emissions by 75%; this and the other initiatives that we’ve done over the past few years.
Glass: You’ve also got other initiatives going on aside from in the glass studio - can you talk about other ways that you are helping the environment?
Over: We’ve got three electric cars now; pretty much changed the entire fleet.
Robb: There’s a bit more to the trees, because a thousand trees isn’t really enough. So the trees have been our biggest initiative. We’ve gone electric of course. Actually the electric company down the road from us is actually 100% renewable - we live next to a geothermal power plant so we’re perfect with that one. But for the trees we decided that we wanted our environmental sustainability to be for generations to come - not just for us now to be able to make our glass art. We wanted all of our artwork emissions to be fully offset and any emissions we make in the future are offset and that it’ll go beyond that. So we’ve planted 150 hectares of trees, and we basically purchased some land. We’ve invested any profits we’ve got and in the last two years planted…
Over: Well over a 100,000 trees.
Robb: So we’ve planted 150 hectares of tree and actually the other cool thing is that a lot of people are planting these quite quick carbon sequestering trees, these pines, and we’ve got 70 hectares of the pines which is cool because they quickly store carbon. But we had this over big discussion, as you do, when you’re thinking about the environment, that pines aren’t even a native plant to New Zealand. So we really tried to see if we could get the whole thing planted in native trees but at the moment there’s not a lot of initiative really to plant natives.
Over: It costs ten times as much to plant natives.
Robb: Because it doesn’t sequester as much carbon as well.
Over: They only look at the wood of the tree, they don’t look at the whole environment, not the undergrowth or the ecology. So it doesn’t look as good when you look at pines that way.
Robb: From a scientific perspective, we’re just adamant that natives have to be a huge part…
Over: Of the restoration of the ecology and environment.
Glass: How have you been involved with your local community in terms of your environmental work? How is Lava Glass connected to the people and places closest to you?
Robb: So from the whole thing we’ve planted 26 hectares in natives and it’s part of an ecological benefit plan that we’re working on with a local council.
Over: And we’ve got an ecologist involved, to make sure we’re planting the right species, from seeds found in the area so you’re keeping the right genus and making sure the stock are all native.
Robb: We’ve also got some neighboring native bush so we’ve created a corridor for native fauna to be able to migrate between neighboring blocks of natives. It’s all about creating little corridors for the birds to fly from one native area to another. That was one issue. There was a bit of native life on some land that we bought so we’ve protected that as well. So it’s really about a long term, sustainable, generational effort; to do as much as we can from our glass blowing to be part of an environmental push to get carbon out of the atmosphere.
Over: Our main one is to show that it can be done, to lead by example if anything. I mean we’re mainly just trying to be able to sleep at night, you know. For our own conscience, and doing the right thing. It’s been a very interesting journey; we’ve learned so much more than just about sucking carbon. Things like our bubble wrap that we used to wrap our work when shipping it - we’ve had to find an eco-friendly paper-based packaging system and we’ve proven that works really well, this recyclable paper. We’ve not had any adverse reactions from it.
Robb: We also have a cafe on site so we compost, we’re very big on recycling within our cafe as well. We’re also vegans, we’ve switched to being vegans; that’s one of the easiest ways as an individual to help the planet. So we’re very passionate!
We’ve got our sculpture garden and a lot of the community come by. It’s really a unique facility - you can come by and watch the glass artists work and have a coffee. We’ve got a little mini amphitheater and some of the local bands come out and hang out and play music out here. We’re training up some young guys, one of them has just come from high school, actually. So we’ve got some passionate young artists coming through.
Over: A few trainees, and we’ve got another full time glass blower as well who’s been blowing glass for just as long as us so we’ve got a fairly good little team!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Lynden and Christine are always willing to speak about their journey and offer help or advice to others looking to lead a more sustainable work or lifestyle. They can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org!