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Second Time's the Charm: Turn broken pottery into landscape enhancements

Turn broken dishes into useful landscaping materials like these alphabet tiles created by artist Jeannette Brossart at the Scrap Exchange in Durham.
Turn broken dishes into useful landscaping materials like these alphabet tiles created by artist Jeannette Brossart at the Scrap Exchange in Durham. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Ann May Woodward wasn’t upset to see the shards of broken kitchen plates that dotted the parking lot of the Scrap Exchange.

In those broken bits – remnants of Smashfest, a fundraiser in which participants paid to hurl ceramics against a Dumpster – she saw landscaping filler that simply hadn’t been swept up yet. Woodward, executive director of the exchange, which describes itself as a “creative re-use arts center,” looks at the world a little differently.

“To be in a place and live in a world where you have unlimited material resources is where I want to be,” she says, and then she reflects on the phrase. “Unlimited resources – I say that all the time.”

The Scrap Exchange, which has been in Durham since 1991, sells goods that would otherwise end up in landfills, holds reuse workshops and art classes, and even has a gallery where artists exhibit works created from repurposed items. Everything here fits Woodward’s view: The stuff here isn’t junk, it’s a wealth of unlimited material resources.

And that view is gaining currency as the Reuse Revolution enters mainstream culture. In Second Time’s the Charm, we’ll look at creative aspects of reuse, featuring Triangle folks who will show you nifty ways to make the most of materials that once might have been discarded.

Nationwide, Woodward says, there are only 60 or 70 creative reuse centers like the Scrap Exchange. She thinks there should be one in every city, noting that 40 percent of waste comes from construction and demolition. Better planning could prevent that – as well as a new law or two, she says.

“Let’s say you have a house that was built in the 1900s and you’re going to put a McMansion there,” Woodward says. “There is no law that says you have to harvest all the materials and make sure it doesn’t go directly to the landfills. You are never going to see wood like that again or fixtures like that again.”

To many people in Durham, this ecologically responsible mindset is as old as the Scrap Exchange itself.

“I can’t even remember when I started shopping here,” says Durham ceramics artist Anna Wallace. She finds useful materials at the exchange, but also interesting stuff that hints at who the previous owners were. One picture frame Wallace bought contained a dried flower; when she removed it, she found a DUI ticket from the 1970s folded behind it. “So I put it back and I just kept it like that. It’s like a little time capsule.”

Reuse wasn’t always fashionable, of course, but signs of mainstream acceptance are all around you. Most grocery stores and warehouse retailers sell reusable bags, and distaste for plastic bags is spreading. And then there’s the ever-present use of Nalgenes and similar reusable containers, rather than disposable water bottles. The fourth R of “reduce, reuse, recycle is,” Woodward says, “refuse.”

“If you go to a restaurant, bring your own container,” she says. Rather than complaining that a restaurant uses plastic foam, you’re taking an active role and refusing to use it. It’s the same principle as the reusable bag: The consumer is taking charge of his or her own waste.

Going a step beyond that, Woodward tries not to purchase new goods. She shops at thrift stores, taking advantage of a parallel economy of secondhand or unwanted materials. It’s perfectly good stuff, she says, noting that most of what is on the shelves at Scrap Exchange has never been in a Dumpster – and some of it is in factory condition.

But even the materials that aren’t in that condition are useful.

Musician Sam Logan, for instance, bought large quantities of carpeting and foam two years ago when his band, Lilac Shadows, relocated to Durham. Then, they soundproofed a room – and they did it far cheaper than if they’d bought acoustic foam.

It’s a sign of the Reuse Revolution, which Woodward says occurs more places than people necessarily realize.

“Look at your neighborhood Listservs,” she says. “There is an economy that happens on those Listservs that is just amazing.” On these, one person’s unwanted appliance or couch goes to a home that needs it. And Woodward’s mission with the Scrap Exchange is to make that kind of interaction the norm – no landfill required.

“Once you start the conversation, you start seeing reuse everywhere,” Woodward says.

Readers: We want to hear how you have repurposed old items, especially large items such as furniture. For your project to be considered for Second Time’s the Charm, email a photo, a description and your contact information to corbiehill@gmail.com.

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