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Trash to Treasure: find art materials in your school recycling bins

Updated on October 22, 2012

Note: Except where noted, all text and photos are property of the author and cannot be reused without permission.

How much does your school spend on art supplies each year? And how much paper, cardboard, and plastic goes into the trash or recycling? Save money while saving the earth by repurposing materials for art projects at your school.

Old sweaters reused for yarn-bombing a tree.
Old sweaters reused for yarn-bombing a tree. | Source

Reusing items destined for recycling or the landfill also teaches your students to be thoughtful stewards of the earth and its resources. Adjust your thinking to recognize that your trash can be considered a resource for your school.

I talked to one elementary school art teacher, Darla Caughey from Austin, Texas who uses almost exclusively repurposed items for all of her school projects. “I used to order lots of construction paper, and then I realized that we’re just putting paint all over it anyway.” Now she uses newspaper, used writing paper, paperboard boxes (like cereal boxes), and corrugated cardboard instead. Since her school isn’t a wealthy one, a real benefit is that this helps keep her costs low.

Caughey set up an art resource center - a series of tubs (green, of course), each marked with a different recycled art material.
Caughey set up an art resource center - a series of tubs (green, of course), each marked with a different recycled art material. | Source

Caughey has found that organization is key. She set up a resource center for reusable materials, placing a series of large, plastic bins outside of her classroom. She labels them clearly – newspaper, thin cardboard, corrugated cardboard, plastic caps, plastic bottles, etc. If she needs specific items for a project – bottlecaps or foam meat trays, for example – she sets out another marked bin. Teachers, parents, and students see the labeled bins and bring in the requested items. They are also free to use items they find in the bins for their own projects or lessons. Caughey has found that the kids’ thinking has started to shift, recognizing that unused items aren’t necessarily waste; they can be used for other things. They see new uses for items previously discarded, becoming inspired by an unusual piece of Styrofoam, for example.

Caughey’s approach to using the materials is to alter them in some way, usually painting them. If you don’t, creations can look, well, like trash. She often uses painted cardboard and paper in collage creations.

Caughey's students often use painted newspaper, cardboard, or other paper in their collage creations.
Caughey's students often use painted newspaper, cardboard, or other paper in their collage creations. | Source
Painted paper is cut for assembly.
Painted paper is cut for assembly. | Source
Recycled cardboard used as art material.
Recycled cardboard used as art material. | Source
Paper tube crafts
Paper tube crafts | Source
Diorama made from corrugated cardboard, cereal box cardboard, magazine cutouts, bottle caps, styrofoam scraps, and small boxes.
Diorama made from corrugated cardboard, cereal box cardboard, magazine cutouts, bottle caps, styrofoam scraps, and small boxes. | Source

Other recycled materials and possible uses:

  • Plastic bottle caps – collages, eyes, wheels, game pieces
  • Metal bottle caps – drill holes in the center and use like beads; nail onto wood for mosaics; paste picture inside, fill with resin, and make into magnets or jewelry
  • Plastic lids – cut plastic into shapes and use for mosaics, jewelry; use circle as base for another creation; glue pieces to plexiglass for a stained-glass effect
  • Cereal boxes – cut open, trim, and use plain back to make small posters; use as base for painting; cardboard sculptures and dioramas; cut up and use colored side in creations; make whole box into – building, robot, car, etc.
  • Corrugated cardboard – peel one side off and use crinkled side for texture, cut into shapes and use as stamps with paint, use large pieces to protect tables, large boxes can be made into mazes or playhouses, use for sandwich-boards or other costumes
  • Fabric – collages, sewing projects, costumes
  • Old playing cards – paint and decorate to make trading cards, use as a base for small collage artwork, cut pictures and use in collage, cut slits in cards and assemble together into houses or other creations, punch holes and tie together into flexible sheets
  • Sweaters – felt wool sweaters in the dryer and use for sewing projects, combine many and use for an outdoor art installation
  • Newspaper – use to protect work surfaces, paint and use as background or pieces in artwork, make costumes, paint and use for large posters
  • Magazines and catalogs – cut pictures out for projects, cut pages into squares and use for origami, decoupage, use pictures as models for drawing projects, cut out items and glue to walls for dioramas
  • Books – cut pictures or text to use in projects, make into flip books by drawing tiny pictures in the corner of each page (possibly cut one book into several smaller books), decoupage
  • CD or DVD boxes – tape together to make a small terrarium/greenhouse, use as a frame or shadowbox for small artwork
  • Plastic bottles – cut into pieces and compile them into hanging mobiles or sculptures, cut the tops off and use for water and paint cups
  • Styrofoam – use a dull pencil to impress designs on trays and use them to print onto paper, glue Styrofoam pieces together into sculptures, use as three-dimensional element in collages
  • Paper towel and toilet paper tubes – cut into half-inch-tall circles, crimp, bend, or leave as circles, then staple or tape together into shapes for an interesting wall-hanging or flower shape; bend down the center of the top and tape, creating ears, and make into cat, owl, fox; cut strips up from the bottom and curl to create an octopus; use as building sections, staircases, in a cardboard town
  • Colored plastic bags – cut into strips and use for weaving projects, use as tails for kites

Do you have other ideas? What projects have you made using recycled items?

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