Bins of used supplies at SCRAP

When Alyssa Kail walks to work each day, she keeps her eyes on the ground. No, she’s not shy, just on a mission: to find discarded treasures. Kail is the Creative Reuse Center Manager at the School and Community Reuse Action Project (SCRAP), a nonprofit organization focused on inspiring creative reuse and upcycling through educational programs, art galleries and affordable workshops.

“We started about 11 years ago with a group of teachers that hated to throw away their great materials at the end of the year, so it started just on a card table and as a free swap of materials,” says Kail. “It’s been so popular that we’ve grown and had to move into different spaces. Our focus has changed a lot from our free swap for teachers to offering all of the materials to the public. We now get materials donated to us either from individuals or businesses; everything from paints, paper, fabric and yarn, to weird post-industrial plastic spools and all kinds of plastic, metal and wood items.”

Reclaimed fabric tote and pillow by bright designLab.
Photos courtesy of bright designlab.

Upcycling is far from a new concept—especially in our city full of DIYers—but it is becoming a growing movement bent on creating worth out of seemingly useless items.

bright designLab co-owner Alissa Pulcrano refers to upcycling as recycling 2.0 and defines it as: “To re-life, re-purpose, reuse; giving worth and longevity to items otherwise slated for the landfill.” The brainchild of Portland designers Alissa Pulcrano and Leela Brightenburg, bright designlab is one of the many stores in the city offering beautifully upcycled items. From vintage glass bowls transformed into chic terrariums to reclaimed barnwood and football bleachers renewed into high-end furniture, these girls have a knack for transforming the old into the new.

“As a young artist, I always appreciated the potential in things that other people might not notice, and I have always delighted in surprising people with how items can be re-purposed,” says Brightenburg. “My lifelong passion for the outdoors and how the way I live affects the environment became real when, as a design student, I realized the positive impact I could have in creating built environments and upcycled designs that could bring the ideas to the greater public. At bright designlab, we have been able to combine our passion for good modern design with re-purposing and being tree huggers at heart.”

STaCK and WRaP furniture lines from bright designlab and Hammer & Hand.
Photos courtesy of bright designlab.

This design duo loves the local aspect of upcycling, but one of the biggest benefits for them is to be able to preserve a little history in each art piece they produce. “We consider the ‘cradle to cradle’ theory every time we specify a product, so we know where the materials came from (and ideally, where they will end up),” says Pulcrano. “Our recent collaboration with local builders Hammer & Hand allowed us to combine my compulsion to collect shiny things and our joint penchant for creating sustainable goods and bring it to fruition with the Upcycled Furniture lines.”

The latest creation from this recent collaboration between bright designlab and Hammer & Hand is the WRaP and STaCK furniture lines. The STaCK line is composed of old locker baskets and bleachers from local Oregon schools … complete with ABC gum and Sally-loves-Ben graffiti, while the WRaP line consists of various barns disassembled across the state. Each piece of the WRaP line is completely unique, with history in each nail hole or weather-related marking. “By creating new pieces made of reclaimed barnwood, retired school bleachers, vintage locker baskets and salvaged steel piping, we happily give these industrial 'waste' materials a new purpose,” Pulcrano adds. “We love the idea that through this furniture, people have small pieces of history in their living rooms that then gain an additional story by lasting another 100 years.”

Reclaimed wood used in the STaCK and WRaP furniture lines. 
Photos courtesy of bright designlab.

Upcycling isn’t only about giving new life to worn objects, a big part of the recent popularity in the practice comes from the economic benefits it brings along by literally creating new lives for unemployed workers. In a recent study by the Green Energy Council, they cite the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) as reporting that an estimated 110,000 new jobs could be created by simply reusing half of the 25.5 million tons of household waste needlessly landfilled and incinerated.

“By keeping things as they are or repurposing them, it really benefits everyone environmentally, economically and creatively,” says Kail. “It’s better energy-wise as far as if you recycle something, it takes more energy to turn it into another material than as with upcycling where it takes less energy to keep the material as it is or alter it slightly to use it in another way.”

SCRAP offers a huge assortment of fabric.

Part of Kail’s mission at SCRAP is to educate the city on the benefits of upcycling. The company recently gave a presentation at the second annual ReUse Week fair (check for 2011 dates) on how upcycling could benefit the city of Portland. “Portland is very passionate about recycling, but what I would love to hear is them talk about recycling and reuse,” says a hopeful Kail. As a result of the successful Reuse Week, all of the reuse organizations in Portland joined together to create a more permanent “awareness raiser” called Reuse PDX. “All of our organizations have a niche and we provide materials to underserved populations, so Portland in general is really seeing the benefits of upcycling verses recycling and the fact that it benefits more people.”

Some of the unusual items found at SCRAP.

In the open forum workshops at SCRAP, Kail has seen projects as simple as wire sculptures and as elaborate and far-reaching as tarps made from plastic grocery bags to be later sent to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. “It’s pretty inspiring to see what people are creating,” says Kail, who notes that upcycling has changed the way she and her co-workers view garbage. “We are notorious for sifting through every trash bin before finally throwing it away to make sure there’s nothing that’s in there that could be recycled in a better way or could just be reused. We look at everything like ‘is it really at the end of its lifecycle, or could we still use it?"—a mindset more Portlanders are beginning to adopt.