As boxes upon boxes of crayons sat among a community centre’s garbage, a cyclist passing by knew the mass of Crayolas should be spared from the landfill, but they could only manage to carry one of the utensil-filled cases.
“Red was their favourite colour. So, they brought us 5,000 red crayons, which I think will make an amazing project and I can’t wait until someone makes something from it,” said Ashley Howe, the executive director of SUPPLY Victoria Creative Reuse Centre.
The downtown Victoria arts, crafts and school supplies thrift store serves as a more sustainable and accessible option for artists, students and teachers as it equips them with the items they need to explore their creative endeavours. The centre takes in art-making material donations from the public and has diverted 7,000 pounds of supplies from the dump after just a few years in operation.
Combining Howe’s passions for the environment and inspiring creativity, SUPPLY salvages the otherwise wasted materials and gives them a new life as art that pays homage to the items’ original use.
“As an artist, I find used materials more interesting,” she said, adding that she was always left uninspired while perusing the aisles of big-box stores as an art student.
Flanked by old competition ribbons, beaded necklaces and loose buttons of every colour, Howe sees it as a creative challenge to try to remake something with what comes through the door.
Some people visit the well-stocked SUPPLY store with a list of items they’ll need for their next project and leave with spools of yarn or vinyl sheeting. Others allow the centre’s eclectic material mix to inspire their next creation as they envision what they can make from a tub of miscellaneous bottle caps or jars of sea shells.
Knowing some struggle to afford materials, SUPPLY operates on a sliding scale where customers are presented with a price range for a particular item and they pay what they can.
“If they need to use the lower end of the scale, we’re here and if they can support our programs and pay higher, that’s awesome because we need financial support to keep this resource open to the community,” said Howe.
The centre also prices everything 50 to 90 per cent off the retail cost and gives a 20 per cent discount to teachers, who often pay for school supplies out of pocket.
“Being an artist is difficult, you have to play so many roles, so it’s nice to be able to support them in some way,” said the executive director. “All the time people say ‘I wouldn’t be able to afford this if you guys weren’t around’.”
The centre’s impact on the community could be challenged by SUPPLY having to vacate its current home by the new year. Howe often hears customers saying “I love this place” as they walk through the Fairfield Road site that opened in July 2022.
She hopes to reopen at a larger space that’s better suited to the growing centre’s needs in February – one that’s more physically accessible and has a loading zone for donation drop-offs. But that will be contingent on the non-profit centre raising $14,000 through a fundraiser to cover its relocation costs.
“We really need the community’s support to keep our doors open so if they could donate to our fundraiser that would be really amazing,” said Howe.
SUPPLY also runs workshops on upcycling waste into art, thinking about materials in a new way and integrating sustainable thinking into the creative process. During a November workshop, children learned how to weave scrap denim and other fabrics into a creation that looked like water. A December class will teach basket-making with discarded ethernet cables.
“It’s an obsolete technology, but the material itself is amazing, it’s flexible, it’s waterproof,” said Howe.
All of SUPPLY’s workshops weave in education as they show crafters how the materials they’re using would impact the environment if they get trashed. Howe hopes the centre can raise awareness about the importance of reuse, as she noted new products consume resources, create packaging waste and transporting them can produce air pollution.
SUPPLY’s education initiatives also stress building resilience to climate anxiety by giving people resources on how to receive information about climate change and waste.
“It’s important to give them the information and emotional coping tools to deal with the reality of what’s happening, and art is a great way of doing that,” she said.
Victoria having the second-largest proportion of artists among Canadian cities made it an ideal fit when Howe was looking for a place to launch the creative reuse centre. The city hosting students and low-income folks who could benefit from more accessible supplies also informed Howe’s move here in 2018.
That was the year the Synergy Foundation invited her into its zero-waste business incubator’s first cohort. That helped SUPPLY begin as a 200-square-foot shed in North Park where Howe handed out donated supplies for free, even through the winter despite the hut having no electricity, running water or heat.
SUPPLY recently earned the Synergy Foundation’s Waste to Resource Ecostar award. Howe hopes the recognition for the centre, and the volunteers who help it run, encourages other businesses to follow suit in pursuing sustainability and valuing people and the planet over profits alone.
SUPPLY’s online fundraiser can be found at https://bitly.ws/34sJw.