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Austin Creative Reuse Gives New Life to Diverted Landfill Materials

The nonprofit has redirected approximately 1.5 million pounds of items from landfills since its founding in 2009

We can no longer ignore the fact that waste is a huge problem. Landfills are filling up, while consumerism continues to ramp up. If we don’t change our habits, environmental destruction could reach devastating heights. So what can we do? One popular principle of combating waste is that of a circular economy, which keeps materials, products and services in use as long as possible. So rather than discarding materials to be dealt with in an inefficient recycling or waste management system, only to extract new resources, we can give those materials a second life. Austin Creative Reuse (ACR) is a local nonprofit doing just that — all while building community as well as fostering creativity and education.

Their creative reuse center is located in the Windsor Park neighborhood in East Austin, where they collect donations for gently used creative materials and then make them available to the public through their retail space and other community programs. Founded in 2009 by a group of like-minded individuals, it is now the largest creative reuse center in Texas — and one of the largest in the country. But it started small: In 2015, they opened their first center in a 1,600-square-foot suite. Because they were initially completely dependent on volunteer labor, they were only able to be open for about six hours each week. Still, they were surprised by the demand from so many people looking for a home for their gently used materials as well as those looking to find materials for their projects.

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In 2020, ACR finally moved out of that long-outgrown space into their current 11,000-square-foot building. They are now open six days a week and have a paid staff that contributes over 50% of the labor hours.

“Our goal is to find ways to work with the community to keep all of these great creative materials outside of the landfill,” says Jennifer Evans, Executive Director of ACR. “They come through our doors and then can be reused again instead of ending up in someone’s trash.” To date, they have diverted about 1.5 million pounds of materials from the landfill, currently diverting about 45,000 to 50,000 pounds every month.

The space also serves as a community hub for creatives and educators of all kinds here in Austin. As far as the types of things they collect and distribute, you’ll find items found in your typical art store (think canvases, fabric, yarn and photography supplies) as well as items you might not think of as typical art supplies (think old records, magazines and vintage items). The idea behind the latter is that folks can give these items a whole new life through unique creative projects.

“We define creative materials very generally,” says Jennifer. “We take items that have lived their first life, and we’re asking people to make an opportunity to use them as something different. We have some amazing artists and makers who come in and make amazing pieces out of things that would’ve been discarded.”

Calder Kamin, who is a local artist and on the ACR Board of Directors, makes all sorts of woodland creatures and landscapes out of bits of plastic, often sourced from the center. Her transformation of trash into beautiful creatures inspires others to be brave and creative when facing the future. Her art embodies the goal of ACR to not only reduce waste, but to foster creativity while doing so. They also host artistic workshops as well as market days where you can meet local artists and buy gifts.

“Because our items are donated, we’re really able to also keep our prices affordable so that if you want to try painting, you can come in and get a reused canvas and some paint for a couple of dollars to see whether you like painting or not,” says Jennifer. “So that ability and affordability allows folks to have materials and abundance, which gives so many different options in terms of creativity.”

Perhaps the most exciting community event is the annual Reuse on the Runway, a fashion show where this past November over 65 local designers incorporated elements of reused materials or techniques to challenge designers to look at old materials in a new way, while challenging the audience to rethink our constructs of fashion. The designs are truly exceptional and another testament to the creativity reuse can inspire.

The one-hundred core volunteers remain critical to the impact ACR is making. Thanks to them, they are able to process all of the donations that come in — including tiny things like buttons and marbles that could easily be lost — keeping the diversion rate at about 97%, meaning less than 3% of what comes through the door ends up in the landfill.

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“We also really enjoy having groups of volunteers from schools and businesses and other community organizations,” says Jennifer. “We can incorporate fun team-building and educational pieces.”

What Jennifer is most excited to build upon is ACR’s education programs. They have always supported teachers by offering materials at low costs and want to increase accessibility to even more teachers, who often end up paying for classroom supplies out of pocket. ACR just launched a new program called Creative Cache, where materials are offered to educators and nonprofits with donation-based pay so they can pay what they can. By continuing to foster their relationships with local schools, they hope to promote the reuse of materials that often end up in the trash at the end of the school year.

“Our community is so important to us and the reason that we can continue to exist,” says Jennifer. “Folks who are willing to look at reuse in a different way come out and try something new with us. We think that if we can make creative reuse fun and exciting and help people learn something new, then they might be willing to look at reuse in other areas of their life as well.”

Keeping things out of the landfill is good for all of us on so many levels. If you need inspiration on how to reuse items and reduce waste in general, don’t hesitate to check out Austin Creative Reuse.