One person’s trash ...

One person’s trash ...

Most people don’t get excited about an old rusty metal box.

But when an electrician replaced our circuit box a few years back, I was thrilled to get the old one.

I finally had a big hunk of metal to take to the recycling center along with the old binder rings, broken fixtures and other bits I’d accumulated.

After the weigh-in, I proudly took my receipt inside and the cashier handed me my windfall: 52 cents. Probably didn’t even cover the cost of the gas to drive there.

But I was happy my castoffs wouldn’t wind up in a landfill for a millennium.

Some of my less-cluttery friends would be appalled that I’d essentially kept trash for months, waiting until it was worthwhile to recycle.

But I’m not alone. A friend expressed glee the other day that a company in Urbana now accepts Styrofoam to recycle. She used to save it until her friend in Michigan came to visit and took it back up north for recycling. Now that’s dedication.

We have inherited our parents’ Depression mentality, mixed with a heavy dose of environmentalism.

Whenever I go to throw something away, I think: Can this be donated? Recycled? Could somebody use this for something?Blog Photo

For instance: I don’t really need eight magnets from our kids’ old basketball league, but it seems a shame to dump them in the trash. Some creative person could glue a photo to them or use them for a craft project.

Or how about all those buttons your kids have collected over the years? Or old keys, wine corks or the wire used in floral arrangements?

Enter the IDEA Store, which takes all of those things and more.

Founded by the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation in 2010 to raise money for public schools, the store is dedicated to “creative reuse” of materials that people don’t need anymore but don’t know what to do with.

To be clear: It’s not a recycling center. They don’t want your soda bottles or newspapers.

But it’s the perfect place for all those odds and ends that are too useful to throw away.

The store is beloved by local artists, seamstresses, crafters and teachers. Where else can you get thread for 25 cents a spool, markers for $2 a pound or a huge stack of envelopes for 15 cents?

But it goes far beyond arts and crafts. I’m amazed at the range of things you can find — or drop off — there.

Tab closures from food bags. Paint sample chips. Boxes of tiny plastic boxes. Old game pieces. Bottle caps. Musical instrument parts. Gelato spoons. It even takes those mesh bags that oranges come in, to wrap small bits of leftover yarn to resell.Blog Photo

Catching my eye last week was a huge bin of pill bottles. What are they used for? Foundation executive director Molly Delaney said her mom used them to store needles and other sewing supplies.

Early childhood educators make them into maracas by filling them with beans or rice. One University of Illinois art student bought the last lot because she needed “a bunch of something” to make a sculpture, on a small budget.

Shoppers run the gamut from the thrift-conscious to the curious. Customers Friday included crafters, grandparents, teachers and a couple hunting for embellishments for an elaborate costume.

“This is the greatest place to get stuff,” said Loretta Lane of Urbana, who stops by once a week to get supplies for creative projects with her grandkids. “I like to keep their minds going.”

Some shoppers come by regularly just to see what’s new or to look for treasures to keep or resell.

“There are people who come in every week and only look at the Legos,” Delaney said.

Valuable treasures do pop up, particularly in the jewelry area. Co-founder and volunteer Carol Jo Morgan has developed an eye, and a local jeweler helps her price items for the store’s annual jewelry sale or to sell at auction. One necklace was estimated at $3,000 to $5,000.

The store also gets its share of “weirdness,” including a squirrel tail at the bottom of one box.

Standing in the receiving hallway, lined with boxes and crates, Morgan recalled the day she opened an “innocent-looking container” that her jewelry radar had zeroed in on. Inside was a lovely brooch, but there was something underneath.Blog Photo

“I pulled it out and there was a desiccated tarantula inside a baggie,” she said.

Unlike me, her first thought was not “aaauuggh!” but “ how cool is that!” She gave it to former volunteer Kirsten Spitzner, an artist who incorporates insects into her vignettes.

Another time, Morgan found a box of Chinese medicinal herbs and potions. The English translation of one tiny bottle read, “snake sperm.” The entire box sold intact.

On Friday, Morgan took a box of donations that included a bag of burlap fabric, coloring books, a roll of what appeared to be X-ray film and an old tennis racket. But she suggested the woman take her VHS tapes and a plastic egg holder to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

The IDEA Store trades with other resale shops, including the ReStore, Salt and Light, and the Connections store at Lincoln Square.

“There’s a home for everything,” Morgan said.

Donations typically come from people who are moving, cleaning out a relative’s home or just keep a bag handy for stuff to bring to the store (me).

“There are times that you know they just opened a box in Grandma’s attic and said, ‘I don’t even know what this was,’ and they bring the whole box in,” said longtime volunteer Kathy Voelker.

The volunteers turn away items when they get too much of something. The store sold “tons and tons” of Mardi Gras beads in February and now it’s getting them all back, Morgan said. Beads are on the website’s “won’t accept” list for now, along with pill bottles, crayons, CDs and egg cartons. (Call first if you’re not sure.)

The store recycles items it can’t sell, and some wind up in the garbage — dirty toys, for instance, or things that smell like cigarette smoke.

But not much. My daughter attended a recent birthday party at the store where each girl was given an artist’s canvas with the outline of a horse. They got to paint it and decorate it with odd bits that presumably didn’t sell — ribbon, sequins, metal key rings — now proudly displayed in their homes instead of filling up a trash bin.

So the next time you start to throw away some perfectly good thing, stop and think: could someone use (or reuse) this?


Note: I've gotten lots of calls and emails today wondering where you can recycle Styrofoam. Here's what I found online, courtesy of the city of Urbana's very helpful recycling web page:


Foam (Styfofoam) - No Packaging Peanuts

Dart Corporation
1505 E Main St., Urbana
(Go east to Lierman Ave - drop-off site is at 'Shipping Dept.' entrance)
(217) 384-1800

*Make sure foam has the #6 chasing arrow on it
*Only CLEAN (rinsed and wiped) food/beverage or block foam accepted (no packaging peanuts)
*Remove straws, lids, tape or any other non-foam material
*Deposit foam into clear translucent bags provided onsite, tie securely and place bag in wheel cart


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, or


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