Plastics and their effects on archival documents

You may have noticed that plastic packaging has been hitting the headlines lately. Having watched the BBC’s Blue Planet II series recently, it would be hard for anyone to ignore the devastating effects that plastics are having on our marine life and the environment. However, did you know that plastics (amongst other common office stationery!) also cause long term damage to archival collections?

Common products such as Sellotape®, plastic wallets, plastic covers, comb bindings and ring binders as well as paperclips, bulldog clips, pins, staples, post-it notes, glassine paper and rubber bands have poor aging properties with plastic and rubber based products deteriorating rapidly causing damage to paper and other materials that come in contact with them.

Typical problems I see with documents we hold and accessions that come into the archives are:

Adhesive tape-Sellotape®

Adhesive tape- Sellotape® can quickly degrade, with the plastic part of the tape becoming discoloured and separating from the adhesive, leaving the sticky adhesive on the document. This in turn can cause damage to the document itself and other documents within the same enclosure. The picture above is adhesive tape which has deteriorated and caused yellow staining to the paper support.

Plastic wrappings/covers

The plastic wrapping is starting to distort, go yellow and deteriorate and needs removing as this could potentially damage the documents inside the wrapping.

Metal

Ideally, all metal objects (except those of historical value) from records should be removed. This is because metal corrodes and can damage records over time. The picture above shows how a paperclip has become ‘rusty’ and has damaged and stained the paper underneath. The photograph below shows how a metal binding has corroded over time potentially damaging the paper documents.

Glassine paper

Glassine paper was traditionally used to store photographs and negatives. The photo above shows how it becomes brittle and discolours over time which can cause damage to any photographic material it contains.

Rubber bands

Rubber bands can cause damage to archival material as rubber is not chemically stable and can deteriorate quickly causing staining, a sticky residue with the rubber band becoming brittle and hard. Rubber bands also ‘cut’ into the documents causing tears and creases.

Prolonging the life of your records

To make sure that your records are usable for as long as possible, a few simple steps and measures will prolong the life of your records.

  • Remove all metal objects including paperclips, bulldog clips, staples which prevent someone from viewing information, pins and sharp objects and metal- ended treasury tags.
  • Remove all plastics except for polyester wallets. Common plastics to remove include comb bindings, plastic wallets and plastic covers.
  • Remove plastic bands (if possible).
  • Avoid the use of Sellotape® and other adhesive tapes.
  • Remove photographs and negatives from glassine wrappers and re-house into polyester wallets or silver safe folders.
  • Remove ring-binders. Ring-binders are usually made of plastic and metal, both of which will degrade and damage to the documents held within. They are usually bulky and waste valuable storage space.
  • Re-house all documents into archival standard housing. Make sure that housing is of the correct size and is made from acid free paper, card or board, contains no metal other than brass and no plastics except those which are inert.

By following these simple steps the life of your records will be preserved as:

  • The removal of metals and plastics will prevent your records from becoming damaged as these materials break down and damage materials in close proximity.
  • Preparing your records so that people will find them easy to handle and read will minimize the risk of any accidental damage.

There are also some useful online resources if you require any further information about how to preserve your records:

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/manage-information/selection-and-transfer/cataloguing-and-preparation-of-records/physically-preparing-records/

https://icon.org.uk/what-is-conservation/caring-your-collection

And remember- always make sure to recycle any plastic products where possible!

Lucy Angus, Conservator

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