George Lucas Educational Foundation

From Trash to Treasure: Reusing Industrial Materials for School Art Projects

Junk becomes classroom jewels for creative recycling educators.
By Ana Beatriz Cholo
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Credit: Veer

A former U.S. Postal Service truck pulls up to the schoolyard and a group of eager children line up to get inside. As they wait, they catch a whiff of what seems like food cooking. "It smells like French fries," says third-grade teacher Lisa Allen.

But it's actually time for art, not lunch, for several lucky classes at Riviera Elementary School, in Torrance, California.

The nonprofit organization Trash for Teaching (T4T) is making its third visit to the school. Inside the truck, neatly organized bins hold an array of discarded objects the children will pick through and then use later for art projects. There are various shades of eyeglass lenses, wires, plastic webbing, giant tubes, and spools and cores of every shape and color. The manufacturers that contribute the items are just as diverse: Medical supply and wooden shutter companies, along with textile, plastic, rubber, upholstery, and gasket manufacturers, are just a few of the sources.

This "treasure" truck, one of two the environmental group owns, runs on used vegetable oil collected from local restaurants -- hence the scent of food. Before the children climb aboard the truck, there's a short discussion with Erika Oelmann, a reuse-education facilitator with T4T, about the benefits of reducing, reusing, and recycling materials.

The concept of using recycled materials for art is not a novel one, but the distinction here is that T4T delivers the trash -- or, rather, "Dumpster diamonds," as organization founders Steve and Kathy Stanton call them -- to the schools.

It began in 2004, when the Stantons, who own a manufacturing company, noticed how their young son used found objects to create artwork in his classroom. They thought about the mounds of colorful, clean material they discarded in their own business and decided to put it to good use; then they recruited other manufacturers to do the same.

The fledgling organization is in sixty schools in the Los Angeles area; during the past year alone, it has distributed 17 tons of materials to local schools. Experienced arts facilitators regularly visit classrooms and model for teachers how objects can be used in a structured visual-arts lesson.

For children with boundless imaginations, a visit to the truck can be filled with wonder. There are glittery pink and yellow pen parts, forest-green fluff that looks like cotton-candy, pieces of leather, and medical petri dishes. When Stanton first began looking for items, he admits he did a lot of Dumpster diving. Now, most companies will set aside their clean, discarded materials, and he says he doesn't have to go diving that often.

Uses for the objects know no bounds. A pen cap, the children are told, can work perfectly well as a dog's nose in an art project. Later, one clever young girl uses a collection of water-bottle caps to construct a charming doll's tea set.

The Stantons's box-manufacturing warehouse in Gardena doubles as the T4T space, and teachers are welcome to peruse the dozens of bins of discarded objects there. In some company warehouses, the business dedicates an on-site T4T Dumpster to make it easier to set aside its materials for the organization. T4T employees do pickups about twice a week, but they're picky about the items they accept. Everything is clean and, for the most part, fairly safe. Wires are the riskiest material, Stanton says.

T4T fits nicely into city and countrywide recycling efforts. Alison Sherman, recycling coordinator for the City of Torrance, says cities in California have been under a state mandate to reduce waste by half, and T4T is chipping away at a small chunk of the problem. "We're laying the groundwork for a whole generation that's going to look at trash very differently," Sherman adds while visiting Riviera Elementary School. "They will have much more awareness of how we dispose of things in the environment."

"I would like to see as many treasure trucks as there are UPS trucks," Stanton adds. "The opportunities are really endless for what we can do."

Related Green Articles:

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    An art teacher runs a tight, environmentally friendly ship.

How can educators, students, schools, and communities go green? Find additional resources about sustainability, conservation, and other earth-friendly practices and curricula on Edutopia's Environment Education page.

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was hoping the author or the Stantons' could suggest some ways I could get a program started at our school. I work at Sandy Spring Friends School, in Maryland, and we teach PK-12. We already use many recyclables for our program but I would love to have some connections with manufacturers in my area.

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Hi Michelle,

One way to build support for a similar program in your community is to share this article with parents and business people. They may be inspired to start such a program.

Contact Trash for Teaching group for ideas. Their web site is

Steve Dahlberg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Those interested in transforming trash into art might also be interested in the type of projects on which I have collaborated. Along with artist JoAnn Moran of rePublicArt (New Haven, Connecticut), we work with schools, communities, conferences and other adult groups to involve the public in creating public art -- art BY the people, FOR the people. These projects typically transform recycled vinyl billboards -- which are using tossed out -- into lamppost banners, murals and large cube installations. The participants, who are often students, generally create the designs and paint the final product, which is then displayed in public, such as hanging banners on Main Street in one's town. These projects are great, because they link what is happening in the school to the broader community, and contribute something to the creative development of that community.

Here's some additional information from my town in Windham, Connecticut, and the "Creativity: The Heart of Community" Windham Banner Project, in which JoAnn and I collaborated:
The Windham community celebrated public art designed and created by 1300 students from Windham's four elementary schools, including Natchaug, North Windham, Sweeney, and Windham Center. Sixty-four unique banner designs were hung on Main Street lampposts in Willimantic as public art - created BY the community FOR the community. Artist JoAnn Moran, of rePublicArt, and Steven Dahlberg, of the International Centre for Creativity and Imagination, worked with students and teachers for three weeks as part of the Windham Schools Artist-in-Residence Program. Through the use of recycled vinyl billboards as the banner material, they helped students learn about the importance of sustainability, public art and creative communities. The Windham Banner Project is part of an ongoing creative community project, working to promote the value of creativity, arts and culture in community and economic development. The City of Toronto Poet Laureate Pier Giorgio Di Cicco says of community creativity: "It is that celebration where people re-invent the world ... where they can be themselves and think imaginatively. ... People want to be accepted and acknowledged in their creative skills as citizens. What they are is already creative. The project is to have them recognize it." In this spirit, the Willimantic creative community projects include several goals and benefits:
* Using creativity and arts to engage the public in their community.
* Providing visual beautification elements through public art to the downtown district.
* Showcasing the creation of sustainable art and green communities.
* Celebrating the diversity of the community - including male and female, multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and multi-organizational.
* Building on and complementing current arts and cultural initiatives, such as Third Thursday Willimantic Street Fest, the Cinema Project, the Willimantic Victorian Home Tour, and the Romantic Willimantic Chocolate Festival, among many others.
* Offering educational programs that help Windham students and others develop and apply their creative thinking skills.
Two of the young banner artists expressed some benefits of creativity and public art: "Public art will help everyone in town imagine wonderful things," and "Our lamppost banners will make our city feel creative. Our public art will also make our creativity shine to our town."

You can find more information about this project and our overall work at:

Steve Dahlberg
International Centre for Creativity and Imagination

Marilyn J. Brackney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm an artist and educator who backed into the reuse and recycle thing when I was teaching elementary art. My principal cut my budget from $1,000 to $250 per semester, so I resorted to using trash or solid waste as art materials. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, as it made me more resourceful and it stretched the kids' imaginations, too.

In 1996, I launched The Imagination Factory, a children's Web site that shows visitors how to make art and crafts out of things most people throw away. Since then, millions of people have visited, looking for inexpensive art ideas or ways to encourage kids to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Some of the dozens of art activities featured include drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, paper mache, marbling, and crafts.

I think teaching kids to reuse materials is a fun and entertaining way to foster environmental responsibility. I'm pleased to see that adults are starting to reuse and recycle, but I focus my attention on children, because they will more easily adopt these habits and incorporate them into their lifestyles. Kids are the ones who will make a difference in helping to save the environment.

Vinyl Banner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Art isn't about what materials you start with. It's about what you end up with. Also a big thumbs up for the creative and environmental aware souls who came up with this creative idea. You are the true backbone of America.

Kathleen O'Neill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The superintendent of my school system stopped in my art room yesterady. I was teaching second graders to make pencil holders out of toilet paper tubes, newspaper strips and artpaste. On each taable there sat a plastic box (formerly an organic spinach container) in which sat 3 yoplait yogurt cups-one with pencils, one with scissors and one with 6 inch rulers donated by a local firm which had made too many for the local police dept to use as evidence rulers in photos from crime scenes. A Gerber baby food container held erasers donated by our power company and pencil sharpeners I (shudder) bought. She expressed that I was doing my part to keep costs down in these times of econonic hardship. Thank goodness for scroungers and re-users! My cup runneth over.

Deanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I currently work for an afterschool kids program.

We are currently trying to secure donors for old vinyl banners to create backpack/messenger bags for the kids in our program.

If you know of anyone or company that would be interested, please contact me.

Thank you for your time!

Deanna Pratt

Manuela's picture

Hi I'm brazilian and I work in a NGO with a project called bodyECOlogy, we are starting to recycle materials in our school, and I'd like to produce the trash cans with the children instead buying them. Anyone could help me with an idea? Because I don't know what to use as the recipient to the trash cans.

Thank you! Sorry for the english mistakes! And if someone want to take a look on the project, the link is

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