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The Business Of Reuse: Making Art From Other People's Decisions

Picture an enormous thrift store with a funky vibe and full of boisterous music. A vintage-looking swordfish hangs above the register, and the art that lines the walls is made from old binders and colorful bits of foam and plastic.

"We get a ton of fabric, beads, buttons, trim, notion, paint, wood, frames, matte board, foam core, billboards, signage, magnets," said Ann Woodward.

Woodward runs the Scrap Exchange in Durham. Thrift stores are a well-known haven for all kinds of cast-offs, but the Scrap Exchange has been collecting odds and ends for 24 years to get them into the hands of artists and teachers. Woodward said the "creative reuse center" collects donated odds and ends—resources she calls them—and redistributes 70 tons of material per year. That's equivalent to 14 SUVs.

"We also get lots of little toys, books and magazines. We get a lot of hardware, too, nuts, crews, hinges, dowels. A lot of plastic that will never be recycles... weird, white plastic things," she said.

You get the idea, they get a lot material. Woodward said the donation model allows the Scrap Exchange to re-sell supplies to artists, teachers and crafters for up to 70 percent off their original retail value.

Back issues of National Geographic magazine fill a bin.
Credit Rebecca Martinez / WUNC
Bins of once-loved items await new owners.

Sales have increased by 2,000 percent since they opened in 1991, and they have outgrown four spaces. She says the retail business alone could support itself, but the the Scrap Exchange is a nonprofit. They collect donations to curate an art gallery and do outreach workshops in schools and prisons. They also teach classes in-house.

When I visited, Carla Knip was teaching a quilting class using discarded industrial fabric samples. Several silver-haired women from Duke’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute try their hands at the machine. More than 500 people volunteer at the Scrap Exchange, but the center also employs people to sort, manage and sell merchandise.

Woodward said they have 12 full time employees and 22 part-time employees, along with seasonal and temporary workers.

"There's not a huge transformation. It's just having a system to collect and redistribute those materials," Woodward said.  "It takes a lot of hands to move those materials from A to B, or C, D. So it's a job creator, which is wonderful as an industry to say yes, we are a job creator."

A banner in the Scrap Exchange reads, "Make art, not trash."
Credit Rebecca Martinez / WUNC
A banner in the Scrap Exchange reads, "Make art, not trash."

Much of what the employees do is sort donations and refuse anything they can't re-sell like old bedding or food containers. Even with 23,000 square-feet packed with bric-a-brag, Woodward said she estimates the Scrap Exchange only throws away a household trash can's worth of garbage per week. She says that mindset is important: limiting what you take in, and using what you have.

"And then, once you understand your consumption, what are you going to go with all the leftover carcasses of your consumption? That is your choice," she said. "We’re just one of the systems out there to help collect those decisions that have already been made."

Woodward welcomes the public to shop among other people's decisions seven days a week.


Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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