Cash for trash: Reuse stores make use of refuse

March 15, 2009


— Artist Cathy Mansell wants your old thread spools, your empty yogurt containers, your unwanted vinyl LPs.

She knows that even if she has no use for the yarn remnants, wallpaper samples, button collections or irrigation pipe unearthed during closet cleanings, someone will need them for an art project. So she’s turned her office full of odds and ends into one of hundreds of reuse centers around the country.

“It’s common sense to get something for free,” said Mansell, the art consultant for the Boise School District. “Part of it is budget, and part of it is it’s just the right thing to do.”

Some reuse centers operate as businesses that sell discards for a few dollars, but most are nonprofits that get by with grants, government support or income from sales. All are based on the idea that for almost every item, however humble, there is a need.

It’s an idea that’s catching on, in part because the environmental movement emphasizes reuse and recycling, and in part because of budget concerns.

“Dance companies love it when we get in fabric for their costumes, teachers get really excited when we get copy paper in,” said Susan Springer Anderson, the education administrator at Materials for the Arts, a city-run reuse center in New York City.

Anderson’s group, one of the largest reuse centers in the country, gets donations from fashion houses, television production companies and big-name corporations like Estee Lauder.

“Every single group finds something here that they are in desperate need of,” Anderson said. “Sometimes they knew it and sometimes they didn’t when they came in.”

The reuse stores are popular for schools, too, particularly since many teachers supplement their classroom materials with items they purchase themselves, said Patrick Riccards, a spokesman for the National Association of Art Educators in Washington, D.C.

“When I go out to the schools, I’m seeing a lot more recycled art projects out there,” Mansell said. “People are trying to highlight it with kids and help them understand that reused stuff can be beautiful and fun.”

The former real estate boom and popularity of the environmental movement have been good for reuse centers, said Leslie Kirkland, who runs the Baltimore nonprofit Loading Dock and also operates the Reuse Development Organization, a trade association of sorts for reuse centers.

“In the past 10 years, more and more building reuse centers have been popping up,” she said.


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