How To Start a Creative Reuse Center: Learnings & Tips From 7 Centers
Are you a crafter or an artist who likes to experiment with different materials? If so, you probably are already familiar with your local creative reuse center. But if your community doesn’t have a creative reuse center, this may be something you’d like to get started locally. If so, this article is for you.
Creative reuse centers collect gently used craft supplies, manufacturing leftovers, industrial scraps, and other materials considered waste. Then they redistribute the materials to the community as supplies for crafting and art — creative reuse! There are creative reuse centers throughout the world, and they are all turning the idea of trash on its head.
To give you an idea of how some creative reuse centers started and how they operate today, we’ve surveyed six centers from the U.S. plus the original reuse center in Australia. We also got some tips from reuse center staff for those who want to start a creative reuse center in their community.
Arts Parts – Boulder, Colorado
Arts Parts was founded in 2011 by a woman who knew firsthand the problem of high-end fabric waste through her husband’s business. The center was incorporated as a nonprofit in May 2015 and opened a storefront the same year. Like most creative reuse centers, Arts Parts felt limited in their space and were able to expand their shop in 2017.
Arts Parts has a staff of six people and a team of 25 to 30 weekly volunteers. Their volunteers logged 1,400 hours in the past year. The center accepts donations any time the shop is open — and it’s open seven days a week (as of July 2023). Arts Parts has a separate intake room for their donations. Most of Arts Parts’ revenue comes from shop sales with a bit more than 10% coming from individual donations and grants.
Materials for the Arts – New York, New York
Unlike other creative resource centers in this article, Materials for the Arts (MFTA) is neither a business nor a nonprofit organization. Instead, it’s a program of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. A New York City artist started the program in 1979 and today it’s considered the largest creative reuse center in the country. Unique to this creative reuse center, MFTA maintains an artist-in-residency program. And although the public cannot shop at MFTA, it provides materials free of charge to registered New York City artistic and educational communities that use those materials to support their work.
MFTA stores its materials in a 35,000 square-foot warehouse in Long Island City. Registered members can make an appointment online to shop for materials at the warehouse. Materials for the Arts accepts drop-off donations and can schedule pick-ups with their box truck. They also can match donors with recipients through their Direct Donations Program. MTFA has a corporate volunteer program and has volunteer programs for individuals and schools. The program has a staff of 15. This group does apply for grants and accepts individual donations.
The MFTA managing director says to those looking to start their own creative reuse center: “There are many different business models for creative reuse centers, but if you are able to gain support from local government it could be very helpful.”
Reverse Garbage – Marrickville, NSW, Australia
A group of teachers and community workers started Reverse Garbage (RG) in 1975 to supplement art materials for classrooms and reduce landfill waste. This veteran reuse center runs as a co-op with funding provided by membership dues, monetary donations, and sales. Their staff runs the facility but they also have many volunteers, including those required to do community service, people doing volunteer work to pay off state fines, and those just looking to do good.
Reverse Garbage has a large facility in a nearly 10,000 square-foot warehouse (900 square meters) where they store and sell materials. They accept donations on a case-by-case basis and request donors to contact them before they show up with supplies. They accept donations from individuals, manufacturers, events, and even film and TV. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, RG was accepting five to six metric tons of materials per week! RG open for shoppers seven days a week. They also have an online store that’s currently undergoing maintenance (July 2023).
An RG staff member told us that “It’s interesting to look back on how our donations for reuse have changed, and that you have to be adaptable, rethinking what you can realistically accept due to your capacity and its potential for reuse. We always try to offer alternatives for reuse or recycling to help more stay out of landfills and also educate the donor as to the value of the resources they have. So, we take only specific items so that we don’t cross over/compete with other not-for-profits — we don’t take clothing as the op-shops/charity shops do this and do it well.”
SCRAP Creative Reuse – Multiple Locations
SCRAP Creative Reuse has locations in Portland Oregon; Baltimore, Maryland; Richmond, Virginia; and Ann Arbor, Michigan. A group of teachers who wanted to find a home for their leftover classroom materials started the first shop in Portland in 1999 with a grant from the state. It became the flagship of a network of SCRAP creative reuse centers in Baltimore, Richmond, and Ann Arbor.
Each SCRAP location is a bit different but all accept donations by appointment and drop-off. Stores may offer bulk or fill-a-bag pricing on some items and they all offer special pricing to schools, groups, and libraries. Volunteers help staff their stores. Each store has different hours and days, but most are open six days a week (Baltimore is open five as of July 2023). Scrap offers arts and upcycling programs to their communities and provides consulting to other creative reuse centers.
The SCRAP creative reuse education director told us, “We’ve learned a lot over the 20+ years developing creative reuse in various communities of all different sizes. Through it all, we’ve tried to remain adaptable and creative in our problem-solving. We value being a part of the larger and growing creative reuse community and networks, providing affordable services and materials as best we can, and contributing to positive environmental impacts.” For more information about starting a creative reuse center, visit SCRAP’s getting started page.
Spare Parts – San Antonio, Texas
Spare Parts was founded in 2011 and opened a shop in November 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. The storefront is the smallest we’ve found — just 1,400 square feet. Run mostly by volunteers, Spare Parts offers for-purchase workshops and is open for shopping on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (as of July 2023).
The nonprofit started with an event to give away used art supplies and other materials for teachers, held in an unused shopping mall. Spare Parts soon after obtained an office to store materials and do administrative work. They continued to offer arts and upcycling programs and workshops in the community including events at libraries, schools, festivals, and so forth. Donations are by appointment, and they do offer online shopping but no shipping. The group has a membership base of donors and also applies for grants.
The executive director and founder of Spare Parts tells those interested in starting a creative reuse center to “be mindful of how you grow, be conservative, and know your limits.” She also encourages new centers to prepare their messaging early; know how to articulate what a creative reuse center is to the community. She also encourages research and to visit as many other creative reuse centers as possible to understand the business.
Upcycle Parts Shop – Cleveland, Ohio
Upcycle Parts Shop was founded in 2014 through a grant under the umbrella of a local community development corporation. The group became a nonprofit in 2019 and now has its own board of directors (full disclosure: this writer is on that board).
The shop runs out of a small storefront and so has limited capacity to keep stock. Donations are accepted by appointment only. Upcycle has a staff of two full-time and two part-time people and many dedicated volunteers. The shop is open five days a week (as of July 2023) and conducts many educational programs throughout the community. The group accepts monetary donations and obtains grants to further their work.
Upcycle Parts Shop’s executive director and co-founder offers this advice to new creative reuse centers: “Determine what matters to you most. Creative reuse centers are a confluence of creativity/arts, environmental sustainability, and community. It’s hard to be good at multiple things at once, especially when starting out, so choose the one that matters most to you then blend in the others!”
The Waste Shed – Chicago, Illinois
A group of dedicated volunteers founded The Waste Shed with the help of GoFundMe in 2014. It became a nonprofit organization in 2015. Located in half of a corner store in Humboldt Park, this creative reuse center has little capacity to store materials long-term. It operates with a staff of 3.5 employees and is open Tuesday through Sunday (as of July 2023). The center accepts donations by appointment only and offers online sales for pick-up. The Waste Shed operates mostly on sales revenue. The Waste Shed staff also does some fundraising and applies for a small number of grants.
Editor’s note: Since this article’s original publication, The Waste Shed has opened a second location in Evanston, Illinois.
Creative Reuse Centers Are Assets to Their Communities
Each of these creative reuse centers works a bit differently. They are specific to their own communities, working with local businesses, industry, and manufacturing partners where they are. But each one reduces waste by recirculating unused materials and encourages creative reuse and artistic expression in the local community. Their physical neighbors are frequently some of their loudest cheerleaders.
Originally published on July 30, 2021, this article was updated in July 2023.