Spinning Trash into Treasure: Reuse, Repurpose, Upcycle

Rainbow in the trash can.” Credit: Herman Rhoids

November 2, 2017; Artsy

A school group on a field trip makes a DIY solar system model, not actually to scale, from discarded Christmas ornaments. Using various sizes of glass ornament plus a bit of yarn and glitter, arts curricula merge with science classes in a warehouse dedicated to creative reuse.

Another time, hundreds of pounds of sand from a closed Broadway show, Grounded, were repurposed to the Materials for the Arts (MFTA) warehouse. The sand eventually completed its reuse journey by becoming the foundation for a new community garden for a NYC classroom in Long Island, Queens.

MFTA’s mission as a nonprofit is to facilitate these full-circle moments. “That’s what creative reuse is: taking an existing object and turning it into something new,” says Kwame Belle, MFTA’s communications coordinator. Born 40 years ago with a mission to provide free materials to creative nonprofits, MFTA collects a wide variety of reusable materials from individuals and businesses and turns them around as free material to NYC public schools and registered nonprofits.

Beyond warehousing materials, professional development workshops are offered for teachers to actively experience ideas from constructing models from reused paper to integrating arts projects into STEM courses. One recent workshop covered how to create covered wagons to study westward expansion, build skyscrapers to study math, and create cars to study friction.

Programs include teacher workshops with trained artists held onsite at specific schools, as well as an artist residency within the warehouse. One measure of success is that the in-school workshops draw not just art teachers, but also teachers in social studies, math, and science. The hallway between the elevator and the warehouse has become an exhibition space, showcasing examples of artistic and creative reuse.

The MFTA website offers lesson plans in art, math, science, and social studies that teachers can download and use in their classrooms. One example is “The Science of Paper,” in which students examine paper to learn about molecular structure.

Reuse resource centers like MFTA can be found in many places across the country. Some partner only with local public schools, while others are open to the whole community. Typically, the vibe is “funky garage sale” mixed with barrels of industrial donations; thrift shop décor plus Home Depot warehouse.

Resource centers provide examples of sustainability, cost-effective partnerships, and creativity and innovation in education. By serving students, teachers, artists, childcare centers, Head Start programs, and assisted living facilities, MFTA and other similar centers connect business, environmental conservation, and education with community-building outcomes such as keeping materials from landfills.—Jeanne Allen