Image: Nathaniel Willis
Gail Burton  /  AP
Nathaniel Willis shops at the Loading Dock Tuesday, March 10, 2009, in Baltimore. Reuse centers come in all shapes and sizes. Large ones like the Loading Dock specialize in lumber, cabinets, windows, and other construction salvage.
updated 3/13/2009 9:07:56 AM ET 2009-03-13T13:07:56

Artist Cathy Mansell wants your old thread spools, your empty yogurt containers, your unwanted vinyl LPs.

She knows that even if she has no use for the yarn remnants, wallpaper samples, button collections or irrigation pipe unearthed during closet cleanings, someone will need them for an art project. So she's turned her office full of odds and ends into one of hundreds of reuse centers around the country.

"It's common sense to get something for free," said Mansell, the art consultant for the Boise School District. "Part of it is budget, and part of it is it's just the right thing to do."

Some reuse centers operate as businesses that sell discards for a few dollars, but most are nonprofits that get by with grants, government support or income from sales. All are based on the idea that for almost every item, however humble, there is a need.

It's an idea that's catching on, in part because the environmental movement emphasizes reuse and recycling, and in part because of budget concerns.

"Dance companies love it when we get in fabric for their costumes, teachers get really excited when we get copy paper in," said Susan Springer Anderson, the education administrator at Materials for the Arts, a city-run reuse center in New York City.

Anderson's group, one of the largest reuse centers in the country, gets donations from fashion houses, television production companies and big-name corporations like Estee Lauder.

"Every single group finds something here that they are in desperate need of," Anderson said. "Sometimes they knew it and sometimes they didn't when they came in."

The reuse stores are popular for schools, too, particularly since many teachers supplement their classroom materials with items they purchase themselves, said Patrick Riccards, a spokesman for the National Association of Art Educators in Washington, D.C.

"When I go out to the schools, I'm seeing a lot more recycled art projects out there," Mansell said. "People are trying to highlight it with kids and help them understand that reused stuff can be beautiful and fun."

The former real estate boom and popularity of the environmental movement have been good for reuse centers, said Leslie Kirkland, who runs the Baltimore nonprofit Loading Dock and also operates the Reuse Development Organization, a trade association of sorts for reuse centers.

"In the past 10 years, more and more building reuse centers have been popping up," she said.

Obama’s green dreamsReuse centers come in all shapes and sizes. Large ones like the Loading Dock specialize in lumber, cabinets, windows, and other construction salvage. The group takes almost anything, though it won't accept broken appliances.

Kirkland sold a set of cabinets without doors for $1 each; the buyer planned to use them as shelves. A 5-gallon bucket of paint is just $7. Loading Dock does a brisk business in conventional building materials and in unlikely finds like pastel-colored toilets from the 1970s.

"You find people who actually do want that lavender toilet because they're doing some kind of weird project, or they're using it as something other than a toilet, like a planter," said Kirkland. "We often wind up with truckloads of broken tile and people come in and use that for mosaics."

At the other end of the scale are smaller places like the Scrap Box, a reuse store in Ann Arbor, Mich., that sells automobile-related materials such as scraps of the rubber used to make gaskets and pieces of leather from car seat makers. A hot air balloon manufacturer regularly donates scraps of colorful ripstop nylon, said employee Sally Warn.

With the downtown in the car industry, those supplies are becoming more scarce, said Warn. But "in terms of customers, a lot of people are still coming in," she said. "We might even be up a little in business."

Reuse centers can be found online or through local municipal recycling offices, and usually list what materials they want on their Web sites.

Mansell will take almost anything. She uses irrigation pipe as rolling pins for young students working with clay. Old plastic containers serve as paint dishes; empty thread spools can be glued to foam and used as stamps.

And "our electricians all know when they have extra wire to just bring a box of it out here and we'll distribute it," said Mansell.

Those old LPs are highly prized as well, and not just by DJs.

"People ask for record albums all the time," said Mansell. "You can melt those with a very low heat; even a hairdryer makes them warp a little bit. We make bowls with them, and giant flowers."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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