Waste Management

Creative Reuse Center Offers ‘Magic’ with Surplus Materials

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The educator area at the Creative Reuse Center of RI offers school supplies at a fraction of retail cost. (Emily Olson/ecoRI News)

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Creative Reuse Center of RI is alive with possibility.

Elizabeth Ochs, director of the volunteer-run fledgling organization, stands in the center of a utilitarian room brought to life by shelves lined with jars of colorful beads and other odds and ends, baskets overflowing with fabric and paper, walls decorated with affirming posters, and a jar of recently donated plastic eyeballs.

“I want this to be a space where people find magic where they least expect it,” Ochs said.

Creative reuse centers collect surplus materials and redistribute them in the community where they can find a second life. They organize themselves in different ways — some have a thrift store feel while others are stocked with parts; some have a retail model while others are membership-based — but they all share one thing: they inspire people to view usable waste’s potential as art. Reuse centers encourage upcycling and repurposing to keep materials out of landfills.

Ochs explained her organization’s model: “We have relationships with local manufacturers, restaurants, and artists and ask them to donate their unusable or surplus materials to us rather than throw them away. I believe waste shouldn’t be part of the process in our community.”

The Creative Reuse Center of RI is membership based; members pay an annual fee for the ability to buy craft supplies in bulk at a low cost.

In a previous life, the everything else area was a biker hangout. The floor was painted black to hide oil spills, and a makeshift bar took up one corner. “It took some imagination to see what this space could be,” Ochs said. Now, the floor is painted white, as are the walls — at least for the moment. Ochs is planning to bring in muralists to add some color. Long tables for crafting or meetings bisect the room, cheerful streamers hang above, and against the walls are large drums filled with thread, cardboard tubes, and other open-ended parts. Floor-to-ceiling shelves hold rolls of paper, packing materials, beads, and ribbon — every glance reveals another treasure.

A bin of beads inspires creativity. (Emily Olson/ecoRI News)

The Creative Reuse Center of RI owes its existence to Recycling for RI Education (RRIE), a reuse center that focused on educators’ needs. “It was a magical space,” Ochs said. “Being there was like being in Disneyland.”

Bob DeRobbio, who was the president of RRIE for 20 of the organization’s 30 years, said, “Teachers can’t get what they need on a school’s budget. On a weekend, I’d see teachers come in and spend $40 just to get through the week,” a price that would be much higher if teachers only had traditional retailers to turn to. RRIE had relationships with those major retailers, and if a store received a box of goods they couldn’t sell, they’d donate that box to RRIE rather than send it back to a warehouse or throw it away.

“We used to get truckloads of stuff,” DeRobbio said. When RRIE closed, a victim of the pandemic, the people who loved it were determined to carry on its legacy.

The Creative Reuse Center of RI had its soft opening at the beginning of October, and its team of volunteers is excited to watch the center evolve. Marie Burns-Snyder, one of the center’s volunteers, said, “It’s so wonderful to see this place forming organically and with intention. It’s bringing people together who wouldn’t connect normally, but who have a shared hope for our environment and our community.”

Another important volunteer is Ochs’ 6-year-old son, who has been with her every step of the way. “I consider him the co-president because he’s been part of every major decision,” Ochs said. “I really believe that young people should be a part of the process because they know more than we give them credit for. Whoever walks in the door, whether they’re 6 or 90, we need their support and vision.”

Ochs‘ vision is to build a community space within the reuse center. “I want educators and artists, young people, and organizers to come in and turn these materials into anything they need them to be for themselves and their students,” she said. “I also want artists to come in and work on their projects. I picture free classes and birthday parties. We’re more than retail. We’re building community based on the vision of our volunteers.”

Snyder said, “The hope is that this will be a space for people of all ethnicities and cultures. It feels so nice to bring in this open-door, open-heart policy.”

Ochs agreed. “We’re creating a model of what we believe in,” she said. “If you feel like you belong here, then you do.”

The Creative Reuse Center of RI is at 991 Waterman Ave. in East Providence. It is open Sundays from 1-6 p.m., Tuesdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., and by appointment. To volunteer or to donate supplies, email creativereusecenterri@gmail.com. For membership information, click here.

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  1. What a great idea. I am constantly looking for new materials for my creations. This could possibly be a source of materials for me and other artists in the community. By having the arts community supporting this place we can help spread the arts to students.

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