With the turn of a crank, ArtsJunktion’s Helga Jakobson transforms black plastic packaging material into shredded bits that can be melted and formed into new items.
Thanks to a recent $2,300 investment into a shredder and accompanying injector designed by the Netherlands-based Precious Plastic, the downtown recycling depot can now recycle some plastics.
"For now, we’re starting small," she says of the open-source plastic recycling system, installed in a sunny corner of their William Avenue storefront.
"We’re utilizing materials on the floor we can’t use."
The small depot won’t be accepting any outside plastic materials for recycling yet, says Jakobson, instead first shredding plastics already in the building. All plastics except Nos. 3 and 7 can be successfully shredded and then heated and extruded into moulds by the hand-operated system. The system will be pedal-powered instead of hand-cranked when a local bike depot completes a stationary bicycle to attach to the shredder.
As a supplier to local artists, crafters, teachers and daycare operators, ArtsJunktion attempts to keep materials out of the landfill, find new homes for the donated materials, and build relationships with people. But sometimes those relationships can be tested when donors bring in items that can’t be used by their clientele.
"We often get environmental guilt donated to us, but we don’t accept that," says Jakobson, who gently suggests other appropriate venues for those materials.
"We have to be mindful as a small organization to be respectful of our capacity."
Sometimes donors engage in wish-cycling, feeling guilty about consuming items that can’t be recycled and hoping someone else may find a way to use them, however unlikely. Jakobson points to two examples during her nearly six years at ArtsJunktion: a box of burned-out light bulbs and an enclosed list of ways to upcycle them, and a garbage bag full of used disposable breast pads.
"You don’t want to shame people for what they’re bringing or feel badly," says Jakobson who declined both donations.
She recognizes that recycling can be confusing, and it’s not always clear what types of materials qualify. Manitobans can check the online "Recyclopedia" run by Multi-Material Stewardship Manitoba at https://simplyrecycle.ca/, but not every item has another life.
"Even as someone who runs a depot, I don’t understand where things should go," says Jakobson.
And having the work "junk" in the name of the 15-year-old organization doesn’t help, because it implies that any sort of materials will be accepted for creative re-use or repurposing.
"I can see why they put it into our name but, oh boy, does it create some confusion," says Jakobson of the moniker ArtsJunktion.
Mostly, they try to head off unusable or undesirable donations before they come to the depot. During these pandemic days, that’s easier because the front door remains locked to limit the amount of people in the space, so a staff person or volunteer meets the donor at the door, quickly peruses the donation, and records the weight of the materials before sending them to the sorting area just a few metres away.
Using just half of a grey plastic folding table in a small space at the back of the depot, several volunteers delve into boxes and bags of donated materials, quickly sorting them and placing them on a cart to be shelved for pick-up.
After only a few weeks at the depot, Katimavik volunteer Fiona Giroux is quickly picking up what can and can’t be recycled or repurposed. On a gap year, the Calgary teenager now sorts through donations, makes craft kits, and cleans and sweeps floors as part of her two-and-a-half month placement at ArtsJunktion.
"I love being social with people," she says about her work at the depot, which included a recent T-shirt tie-dyeing session
If donated material looks dirty or questionable, volunteers don gloves before touching the materials, although occasionally some donations move beyond sketchy to completely untouchable, says longtime volunteer Connie Embury, recalling a memorable container packed with used sex toys.
While it may be admirable that someone wanted their personal items to have another life, those types of donations are difficult to upcycle or offer up for reuse, even within the circle of artists and crafters who frequent the depot, says Jakobson, the depot’s only full-time employee.
"We just don’t have the capacity to recycle that type of material," she says.
"Our metric is what will cycle through and be the most useful."
Attempting keep as much as possible out of the landfill, the depot sends about 300 kilograms a month to metal recycling, electronic waste depots or thrift shops, producing only a garbage bag of waste each week, says Jakobson with justified pride. That’s no small feat, since ArtsJunktion takes in about four metric tonnes of materials monthly and disperses about 90 per cent of that back to the community through sales, craft kits, workshops and other creative reuse. Materials are available on a pay-as-you-can model, with a suggested rate of $3.50 per kilogram.
The non-profit’s website (artsjunktion.mb.ca) flags its most desired items — canvases, paper, paint and brushes and beading supplies top the list — and also lists unacceptable items, such as Styrofoam, used medicine containers and medical equipment, personal care items, and anything with odours, stains, mildew, hair, dust or grime.
When the depot is full up on acceptable items, it places them on a pause list, explains Jakobson. These days that includes fabrics, upholstery samples, trophies, and slide carousels and projectors.
"People are really unaware of how difficult it is to recycle fabric," she says, pointing to the bins packed full of fabric sorted by colour and fibre content stored along two walls of the depot’s retail area.
"They wish it wasn’t waste so they send it off."
Sometimes what seems like waste to some becomes desirable to others, such as the depot’s drawers full of old family and vacation photos, including treasures like studio wedding photographs from six decades ago.
"Artists love to create and these are beautiful materials," says Jakobsen of the personal photos.
After nearly two years of pandemic-style operations, with shorter hours, reduced retail capacity, and digital programming instead of in-person classes, she says the need for a place like ArtsJunktion where creative souls can find affordable materials for their artistic pursuits is more important than ever.
"The pandemic has shown us creativity is absolutely crucial for mental health and creativity keeps young people going," she says.
"We’ve seen an incredible rise in need."
Along with the demand for supplies, Jakobson knows there’s a growing need for information on what can and can’t be reused, repurposed and recycled. That also takes some creativity, both in getting the information out to consumers and helping them understand how to cut down on waste in the first place.
"We really need to be dealing with ad hoc and inventive ways of dealing with what we’re consuming," says Jakobson.
"If you aren’t enticed by it anymore, where is the place for it?"
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.