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 Rogers Park Golf Course and the Hillborough River from above. - Julie Branaman
Rogers Park Golf Course and the Hillborough River from above. - Julie Branaman | Show Photo

Features

Creative Reuse Movement Boosts Urban Economies By Turning Trash Into Treasure

Sarasota Architectural Salvage. - Julie Branaman
Sarasota Architectural Salvage. - Julie Branaman
Creative reuse centers are shops or warehouses where you can buy materials in bulk that would otherwise wind up in the landfill. Geared toward artists, teachers, parents and crafters seeking raw materials, they have been growing quickly across the U.S. They're treasure troves of creative possibilities for anyone with an artistic mindset. 

These reuse centers can be described as traditional craft stores crossed with a funky garage sale which your artistic next-door neighbor helps curate. They're stuffed with rolls of yarn, reams of paper, stacks of vinyl tile samples, bins of colorful slides and other items that, once transformed, could become the next public art masterpiece.

Moreover, these reuse centers are creating green-collar jobs, reducing waste, educating people about how to live a simpler, more creative lifestyle and giving artists a place to buy supplies. One person's trash is another person's treasure, enriching all of us.

"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, Ohio. "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 sitting and wasting in a landfill.''

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

Unwanted Stuff To Sought-after Art

The creative reuse economy has exploded in recent years, with more and more artists using 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 fashionable, 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 Cleveland EcoVillage on the near west side of Cleveland. Her business, which is appropriately called Plenty Underfoot, is inspired by the idea that there is more than enough stuff lying underneath 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 cities. From Sarasota Architectural Salvage 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 unloved plates and fashions them into much-loved necklaces, creative reuse artists are springing up everywhere. 

McGee has created a successful business out of her love of upcycling the city's debris. She has made centerpieces for restaurant chains in Cleveland, offered workshops to teach would-be crafters how to reuse ordinary stuff and taught crafting to school kids.

Now she is opening a creative reuse center in Cleveland. In partnership with a nonprofit, she recently snagged a $375,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a group of national arts funders that provide funding for creative placemaking projects. She will launch Urban Upcycle to sell crafting materials as well as artists’ wares in long-empty storefronts which populate the St. Clair Superior neighborhood two miles east of downtown.

Plans include workshops to help residents learn the art and economy of creative reuse, an incubator to help businesses get started, and 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.''

Warehouses For The Raw Stuff Of Creativity

There are now 42 creative reuse centers across the U.S. The largest ones, like SCRAP in Portland, Oregon, 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 trainings and conferences to help more people open creative reuse centers in cities.

Although every creative reuse center operates differently, what they have in common is a nonprofit mission to repurpose donated materials into creative projects, thus helping the environment. That might mean selling rolls of yarn to crafters, offering donated art supplies to artists, or selling activity kits to teachers hungry for hands-on art projects.

Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT) in Denver, Colorado, 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 are priced at 80 percent off retail while used supplies are priced at 90 percent off – RAFT earns 30-40 percent of its annual revenue from sales at its store. 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 than teachers, though they are still a core audience. It started in 2010 in a 500-square-foot space that was once 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 building supply reuse store Construction Junction.

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 low-cost materials. 

Of course, creative reuse centers also have an environmental impact, however small. PCCR diverts about two tons per month from the landfill. "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, according to Heather Bouley, one of the group's founders.

Yet SCRAP DC is about to move 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 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 a "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 guitars made from old cigar boxes that are beautiful, functional art objects.

The Scrappy Creative Reuse Economy Grows Up

Although each of these creative reuse centers has its own story of humble beginnings, another common narrative is now emerging. As the reuse movement expands, so too does the customer base for raw materials and finished artistic products. With growth trending upwards, these centers are running larger, more sophisticated operations.

Although time will only tell where the creative reuse movement is headed, the Reuse Alliance is spearheading an effort to launch a national creative reuse association, creating a national network and raising the profile of this budding economy. 

"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, creating a positive effect on businesses and communities.

In fact, we might view upcycled items as the ultimate "value-added'' products. These artisans are transforming what was once deemed worthless into high-value items, salvaging materials that would cost money to throw away and turning a profit.

That's perhaps the creative reuse economy’s lesson: the treasure is indeed underfoot.

Lee Chilcote, a Cleveland-based journalist, is Editorial Director of Issue Media Group and Development News editor at our sister publication Fresh Water Cleveland. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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