The Scrap Exchange – My Home Away from Home

Editor’s note: This blog post was updated on 9/21/15 to reflect a change in address.

When I am not creating art, there is no other place I would rather be than The Scrap Exchange. This amazing creative reuse center is now located at 2050 Chapel Hill Rd. in Durham, NC.  I started volunteering 5 years ago, and now am proud to be a staff member (although I still put in a bunch of volunteer hours in addition to paid hours). The work is never-ending…  And the reason why is simple – “waste” in our consumptive society is ever-ending.

The Scrap Exchange is a true pioneer in the creative reuse industry. While the term “reuse” is becoming an emerging buzzword in the ongoing green revolution, The Scrap Exchange has been a non-profit actively practicing the value of reuse for almost 20 years.  These concepts aren’t new; humans have reused materials ever since figuring out how to repurpose a simple rock into a useful tool. But sometime in the 20th century and the explosion of mass production of inexpensive goods, the concepts of reuse became lost and pushed aside. Entire generations grew up thinking it was OK to throw away everything and continually purchase new products. It only took a few decades for this “mass produce and then throw away everything” mentality to take a significant toll on our culture and on our environment.

But as the world around us was buying everything shiny and new in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, some of us still lived in households that followed the old-fashioned adage of “waste not, want not.”.  I grew up in such a home. In many ways, I have been training to be a scrap artist since childhood. I learned early that reuse began at home. My parents both grew up with little money, and during the Depression they used the concepts of reuse as a means of economic and physical survival. They passed those skills onto their children. I was making Christmas ornaments from bottle caps and magazine pictures when I was a preschooler. My father salvaged nails from old pig pen lumber to use while building the house I grew up in. My mother saved eggshells, matchboxes and used greeting cards to make intricate 3-dimensional diorama ornaments. My childhood paper dolls were cut from magazines and Sears Catalogs. When my sister and I played “grocery store”, we used real empty food boxes instead of imitation plastic ones. One of my aunts made over 100 scrap quilts and was always surrounded by boxes of scrap fabric whenever we visited. Is it any wonder that I developed into an artist who simply adores the “art of reuse” and wants to pass the skill along to the next generation???

When I enter The Scrap Exchange, the simple and enduring concepts practiced daily in my childhood home by my parents become alive again. The Scrap Exchange collects discarded materials from business, industries and the general public, and makes them available through its store or programs to artists, teachers, crafters, tinkers, children or anyone else who is interested.  As I walk through their retail store, I see collections of stuff that others routinely throw away.  Barrels of bottle caps, bags and boxes.  Mountains of metal and plastic.    Rolls and rolls of reclaimed fabric.  Hundreds of pounds of paper scrap.

When you walk into The Scrap Exchange, you see rows and rows of blue barrels that contain a wide variety of reclaimed materials.
Some materials are sorted and packaged to make shopping easier for customers who may find the sheer volume of loose materials overwhelming.  These collage bags are an example.

While searching through the incredible collection of reclaimed materials at The Scrap, the fact that my mother washed out bread bags and hung them to dry on a clothesline over the sink no longer seems odd, it seems natural. I now understand why my father did not throw away a barely used paper napkin after one use at a meal, but saved it to use at the next meal. I finally and deeply comprehend why my Dad always lectured us kids on being “wasteful”. The world around him was exploding in waste of perfectly good materials and he was appalled.

Cones are a popular scrap material collected and sold at The Scrap Exchange.

My parents are no longer with me, but thanks to The Scrap Exchange I can celebrate their spirit of utilitarian and creative reuse every day. The Scrap Exchange feels like home and reconnects me with my core values. And like Dorothy said after visiting the land of Oz, there truly is “no place like home”.  I miss my Mom and Dad. But I have a place I can go where I feel their presence as strong as ever. And that place is The Scrap Exchange. I’ll be writing about it often.

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