Scrapstores: turning waste into arts and crafts

The Watford Scrapstore is a treasure trove for children, teachers and eco-conscious artists on a budget. Here, scrap materials are transformed into community art

The Watford Recycling Arts Project (WRAP), better known as the Watford Scrapstore, is a busy place. It may not be easy to walk around, but it is delightful to see adults and children selecting materials that escaped the landfills, soon to become art in their hands. Even better to know that there are many other similar projects across the UK, which use creativity and voluntary work to reduce waste, and are now being organised into a federation.

A scrapstore, normally a charity or a community group, is a perfect link between businesses and consumers, and it works in a very simple and effective way. Clean industrial scrap material, such as textiles, paper, foam, plastics, carpet, leather, ribbons, paint and any other craft material is collected by the scrapstore. After being selected and organised, this material is freely available to the scrapstore's members.

Anyone can join, and the membership is a symbolic annual fee. In the case of Watford Scrapstore, it is £13 for individuals or families, £28 for after-school groups and other non-profit groups, and £80 for schools.

Re-thinking waste

While people benefit from cheap good quality scrap material, companies save money by cutting down their waste disposal costs, and together everybody helps to reduce the ever-growing landfills. But like most of the scrapstores, Watford is unable to receive any domestic waste that has creative potential and is still refused access to the council's recycling collection, which includes items such as CDs and plastic containers.

Richard Ahrens is a trustee member and has been working with the Watford Scrapstore since its foundation, in 1997. He believes that the estimated 110 scrapstores today operating in the UK are more an inspirational example than a number to be celebrated.

'There should be a scrapstore in every community. One hundred could be a good number only for London, not for all the UK,' he said.

Artist Anna-Marya Tompa is a founder member of WRAP and explains how it all began: 'It started off as an art project, making craft items out of inexpensive material sources. Today we have 2,600 members and about 30 suppliers. And, as there is a lot of sorting and physical work in the warehouse, we always welcome volunteers.'

Daniel Doyle and Helen Burtt are only two of the 30 volunteers who still make WRAP a success today. While organising a newly arrived load of foam, Daniel chatted away: 'I live nearby and have been volunteering for a year, because I believe in what these people do.'

Helen agreed: 'I appreciate the ethical part of the project,' she said.

Community fabric

It seems that it is not only the volunteers that appreciate the scrapstore project. Veronica Madden, who normally goes to WRAP to collect arts and crafts material for her Beaver Scout Group, was busy looking for fabric and foam with four year-old grandchild Kelly, who said: 'We are going to make a new quilt for the dolls'.

While the ethical component of the project seems to be the consumers' strongest motivation, there is also a good opportunity to stretch budgets. 'We need so many resources in the reception class, and sometimes the budget is so small,' teaching assistant Diane Kelly said, with hands full of fabric and paper.

From an artistic point of view, what makes a scrapstore unique in comparison to an art shop is that there are always new materials arriving and you never quite know what you are going to end up taking home. For the children visiting WRAP, the creative process is not only related to the artistic activity itself - it starts with the fun of picking up their own stuff.

WRAP also runs art and craft workshops for groups of children. Last year, the scrapstore took part in the project 'Herts Open Studios', together with another hundred studios and artists, who opened doors to show their work to the community. Part of the exhibition organised by WRAP can still be seen in the store.

Scrapstore Federation

The idea of creating a federation of scrapstores isn't totally new. WRAP has been in touch with other nearby stores, to swap material and ideas. Children's Scrapstore of Bristol, one of the oldest in the UK, has a national database of resource centres, and also runs a scrapstore email newsgroup.

A Federation of Resource Centers (FORC) was disbanded more than 15 years ago, as there were fewer scrapstores and not enough people working. However, a feasibility study carried out in 2007, with the funding of the Tudor Trust, showed that scrapstores are keen on networking again around a federation.

Gary King, part of the management board behind the Federation of Scrapstores, explained: 'A number of the larger scrapstores have been discussing the idea of forming a federation for some time, ten years to my knowledge. However, since the feasibility study, the notion that a federation could be a reality has really focused the management board'.

King, who also works at the Cornwall Scrapstore, believes that lack of time has been the biggest challenge so far: 'Everyone involved with this project has other jobs and lives so it has been difficult to get things rolling; hopefully the uphill bit is over now'.

He argues that, although the scrapstores 'already offer tremendous value to local communities', a federation will bring advantages to all: 'We would like to think that a federation will support the scrapstores in such a way as to make them more efficient, more sustainable and better value for the communities they serve,' he said.

'In an uncertain climate, where finding funding has become more difficult, we see the Federation of Scrapstores as an organisation that will seek to be capable of generating funding, marketing the broad spectrum of projects it represents and over time, influencing government thinking on industrial waste, children's play and reuse.'

Further information on WRAP:
Opening times:
Tuesday 2.00pm-4.30pm;
Wednesday 10.00am-12.00pm;
Thursday 2.00pm-4.30pm;
Saturday 10.00am-12.00pm.

Directions: Wiggenhall Depot,Wiggenhall Road,Watford ,WD18 0FB
01923 231395 email:

*You can find out if there is a scrasptore in your area and get in touch with the Federation of Scrapstores through the website on the section ‘UK Directory of Scrapstores'

Giovana Zilli is a freelance journalist

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