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one person's trash = another person's treasure: creative reuse centers are on the rise

Nicole McGee of Collective Upcycle












Think traditional craft store crossed with funky flea market operated by your environmentally conscious neighbor. Creative reuse centers are places where one can purchase materials that otherwise would end up in a landfill. These centers are popping up all across the nation -- including Cleveland -- where they're adored by artists, teachers, parents and other crafty folks seeking raw materials for projects of every stripe.
 
Call it a win-win-win, these centers create green-collar jobs, reduce waste and offer artists an affordable place to buy supplies. After all, one person's trash is another person's treasure.

"It used to be just the poor, starving artist stereotype of taking found materials and dumpster diving out of necessity," says MaryEllen Etienne, executive director of the Reuse Alliance, a national group based in Dayton. "We see that still, but there's more thought in it. They're trying to have an impact by showing that these things can still be beautiful and have meaning rather than just wasting away in a landfill."

As part of our ongoing national series about what's driving creative change in America's cities, Issue Media Group is taking a deep dive into the creative-reuse movement to see how it's improving urban life, one necklace-made-from-vinyl-flooring at a time. 

Art supplies

The creative reuse economy has exploded in recent years, with more and more artists utilizing upcycled objects in their work. There are over 300,000 items tagged "upcycled" on Etsy, compared with just 10,000 a few years ago. Artists everywhere are creating viable new businesses by turning discarded items into new products.

Nicole McGee is a Cleveland artist who makes jewelry, bouquets of flowers and artwork out of scraps of vinyl flooring, plastic bottles, corks and other things people throw away. 

"There's a creative reuse movement that's growing in Rust Belt cities," says McGee, 33, who lives in the EcoVillage on the city's near-west side. Her business, aptly named Plenty Underfoot, is inspired by the idea that there is more than enough stuff lying beneath our feet to create the goods we need in our lives. 

"The idea of reducing consumption is one I feel strongly about," she says. "Because of our history of making things here, places like Cleveland are friendly to this industry."

As it turns out, so are many other cities. From an architectural salvage warehouse in Sarasota that makes art out of iron door knockers to a Minneapolis artist who makes sculptures out of junk, to a Baltimore jeweler who breaks grandma's unwanted dishes and reworks them into necklaces, creative reuse artists are springing up everywhere.

McGee's pursuit is more than a green-tinged hobby: it's developed into a full-fledged business. She has made centerpieces for restaurants in Cleveland, offers workshops on reuse to would-be crafters, and teaches crafting to school kids. 

Soon, she'll open her own creative reuse center. In partnership with a nonprofit, she recently snagged a $375,000 grant from ArtPlace America, which provides funding for creative placemaking projects nationwide. When it opens, Urban Upcycle will offer crafting materials and art supplies in long-dormant storefronts in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood. Long term plans include holding workshops for residents, starting a business incubator and establishing an online marketplace for reuse artists. 

"We'll be revitalizing the downtown strip of this neighborhood in ways that create new learning and skills in residents who live here," says McGee. "We'll be inviting them in."

Models of creativity, outreach

There are now 42 creative reuse centers across the U.S. The largest ones, like SCRAP in Portland, employ as many as 20 people and have developed a strong base of funding. To grow the movement, organizations like the Reuse Alliance are offering training and conferences to share best practices. 

Though every center operates differently, they all share a mission to repurpose donated materials into creative projects, thus helping the environment. That might translate into selling rolls of yarn to crafters, offering donated supplies to artists, or selling activity kits to teachers hungry for hands-on art projects. 

In Philadelphia, The Resource Exchange began life as a clearinghouse for discarded theater sets and props. It eventually expanded its mission to include arts and craft supplies, building and home improvement materials and home décor items. In its first year alone, they saved over 30 tons of materials for reuse and helped recycle over 600 tons of additional material previously destined for landfills.

Denver's Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT), part of a national organization with centers in Sacramento and San Jose, focuses exclusively on educators, whether they're teaching artists, after-school program mentors or regular classroom teachers. Teachers come to RAFT to find funky, affordable art supplies for their classrooms.  

"We support teachers' efforts to do more project-based, hands-on learning by giving them the resources to do that," says Stephanie Welsh, Executive Director of RAFT Colorado. "Sitting there passively is not how kids learn, and we understand that."

Despite rock-bottom prices -- new supplies cost 80 percent less than retail, used supplies are 90 percent less -- RAFT earns 30 to 40 percent of its annual revenue from sales. The remainder is raised from foundations and private individuals. So far this year, RAFT Colorado has repurposed 19,000 cubic feet of donated materials. 

The Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse serves a broader constituency. The organization started 10 years ago in a 500-square-foot space that once was a men's bathroom and "had one window that sort of worked," says Erika Johnson, the group's executive director.  
 
PCCR now operates out of a 4,200-square-foot warehouse it shares with another business. The group teaches children and adults the art of creative reuse at libraries, festivals and senior centers, and supports creative reuse artists by providing them with low-cost materials.  

PCCR diverts from the landfill about two tons of materials per month. "That's a drop in the bucket compared to what goes into landfills every day," says Johnson. "But it's also a lot of Volkswagens [of trash] that have found their way into creative projects in the city."

"Part of the reason why Pittsburgh has been a great place to start a reuse center is that we already had a strong tradition of valuing our past here," she adds. "There's a strong tradition of making our past new and also of telling stories through our material culture."

Other organizations are, well, scrappier. For instance, SCRAP DC, which launched three years ago, stored its materials in volunteers' sunrooms, closets and garages for the first year, bringing the "gospel of creative reuse" to the city's residents through mobile workshops. 

SCRAP DC will soon graduate into a new 2,400-square-foot space that will be open four days per week. In addition to continuing its creative reuse workshops throughout the city, SCRAP will lease space to artists and offer a shared gallery for exhibitions.

"People are excited about it," says SCRAP co-founder Heather Bouley. "We are the only reuse center in D.C."

Creative reuse centers show the average person what's possible with found objects and make art more accessible to everyone, argues Carol Sirrine, executive director of ArtStart in St. Paul, which operates a creative reuse center called ArtScraps. 

In addition to the reuse center, ArtStart operates "ScrapMobile" out of a PT Cruiser, bringing free community arts programs to street corners, festivals and public schools.  

"Because of the green movement in recent years, there are more people doing this kind of art and it's rising to the level of fine artistry," she says, citing examples such as beautiful, functional guitars made from old cigar boxes. 

Creative reuse grows up

As the reuse movement expands, so too does the audience for raw materials and finished products. With growth trending upwards, these centers are running larger, more sophisticated operations. Meanwhile, the Reuse Alliance is spearheading a national creative reuse association.  

"There's a huge economic impact out there," says Etienne. "Some reuse centers have just a few employees and some have 20 employees. These are all green-collar jobs -- people making a living while doing something that's beneficial for the environment."

Etienne points out that not only is reuse good for the environment, but it also keeps money circulating locally, positively impacting local businesses and communities. 

In some ways, upcycled items are the ultimate "value-added" products. Artisans are transforming what was deemed worthless into high-value items, salvaging materials that would cost money to throw away while turning a profit. 

Perhaps that's the real message of the creative reuse economy: In the right hands, one person's trash literally is another person's treasure.

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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