Back when we lived in Durham Phil used to make me romantic gifts – wind chimes made of hardware, styrofoam flowers, cards sewn together with shirt buttons. Being a romantic on the cheap, Phil was not commissioning these unique gems. Instead, The Scrap Exchange was inspiring this romance.
We have visited a number of ‘scrap’ stores across the US (remember Urban Ore in Berkeley?) – stores where one man’s trash becomes another man’s treasure. My question is, can these reuse stores majorly reduce our waste production? Or are they just a sweet romance, fueled on good intentions, but ultimately unable to make a real dent in the problem? Ann Woodward, Executive Director of The Scrap Exchange, thinks reuse is at the heart of addressing our trash problem.
The Scrap Exchange is the country’s largest non-profit reuse store. This place is heaven for any artist or DIY-er. Most of what they take in are industrial discards – things like carpet scraps, weird tiny glass bottles, and film canisters. They also take some residential materials from people cleaning out the attic – postcards, photographs, old cassette tapes, and Denise Austin workout VHSs (yes, I thought about buying a few).
I love sifting through the old postcards. Last time there I read a whole stack of postcards addressed to Czelso Melosz – all of them from a certain ‘Merton’ who professed his love to Czelso for years… what more entertainment do you want on a lazy Saturday afternoon?
But no, no, reading other people’s mail is not the only perk of this place. Ronny is The Exchange’s resident piano player. This guy could give any lounge player a run for his money… just imagine shopping through a giant warehouse to live piano music. We asked Ronnie to play our song – Mack the Knife – and we cut a rug right there in the middle of the store.
Though The Scrap Exchange is a non-profit, it is nearly entirely self supporting through its own sales. Only about 10% of its budget comes from grants and donations. This is pretty impressive considering that they have 10 full time employees, plus another 22 part-time and seasonal employees. For the amount of material they process, The Scrap Exchange creates many more jobs than a recycling facility.
Ann is a big believer that reuse should happen way before we think about recycling. Recycling is usually much less efficient energy-wise: it always requires the addition of virgin materials, and the additional processing takes energy, time, and resources. Reuse, on the other hand, preserves all an object’s embodied energy and cuts down on the need for new materials. Scrap stores can be a conduit for making reuse possible, connecting people to the things they need. More than this, I think they are an essential part of promoting a culture of reuse – they keep reuse on our minds, and make it a part of how we understand our ‘stuff.’
Last month The Scrap Exchange hosted their first ‘Bootcamp‘ where people from across the country could learn how to start creative reuse centers in their towns. Maybe this could be the start of something.