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Treasures from the tip

Scrap stores are boosting schools' resources with their Aladdin's caves of industrial leftovers. Martin Whittaker reports

It's like watching children let loose in a sweet shop. Within seconds of coming through the door, teachers are rummaging through bins full of plastic bottles, skeins of left-over fabric, piles of wooden lolly sticks, empty yoghurt cartons and bits of card.

There's enough stuff in this warehouse to give a Blue Peter presenter a seizure. And the staff from Grange Junior School are loving every minute as they use part of an in-service training day to stock up on scrap for valuable classroom resources. The Scrapstore in Gloucester is an Aladdin's cave of recycled leftovers, salvaged from businesses that would otherwise have dumped them on landfill sites.

There are hundreds of little plastic pots used for storing camera film, cardboard inserts from rolls of packing tape, plastic line from rotary clothes-dryers, ceramic tiles and carpet samples, rolls of labels and stickers, spools of thread, used shuttlecocks - the list goes on and on.

While piling it into supermarket trolleys, teachers from Grange find that the scrap itself generates ideas. A roll of laminated plastic is destined to become a timeline around the classroom wall. Piles of white tissue paper left over from the manufacture of tea bags will become snowcapped mountains on a collage. One teacher pulls out some black plastic mouldings. "Put these together, put some white bits in and you've got a Tudor barn," he says with satisfaction.

Headteacher Paul Harvey says Grange spent last year looking at customising its curriculum; this term they are changing their approach. "We're doing a lot more through themes, and we want a lot more experiential work," he explains. "So we're looking to get things for the kids to use and build.

"This is a good place to come; we can go back to school in September and have a whole variety of things we can use. Then we can come back and re-stock."

The Scrapstore is part of Gloucestershire Resource Centre, a registered charity which provides resources for the arts, play and education. It has more than 900 members, and collects scrap from around 70 local businesses.

Annual membership ranges from pound;15 for charities to pound;120 for private schools. State schools pay pound;30. They can come back as often as they like and are charged pound;7 for every trolley-load they take.

There are about 90 scrap stores or play resource centres throughout the UK, all independent organisations. One of the biggest and longest-running is the Greater Manchester Play Resources Unit - called Grumpy for short.

Grumpy was set up in 1977, at first salvaging telegraph poles, railway sleepers and trawler nets for adventure playgrounds. It now has more than 5,000 members and estimates that about 1,000 tonnes of recycled scrap passes through its doors each year.

Another among the early pioneer organisations to begin recycling waste for play and education is the Children's Scrapstore in Bristol, launched in 1982 by Avon Friends of the Earth. It was run initially from a garden shed but now has 1,320 members, including more than 200 schools and colleges.

The organisation is now trying to start a national federation of scrap stores to allow them to exchange materials and information about their stock.

"Whether schools become members often depends on the teachers," says membership officer Caitlyn Jones. "There won't be a push coming from the curriculum or from central government to make schools use us as a resource.

"It tends to be arty, creative, environmentally minded teachers who take up our banner and get membership."

Scrap stores have to be very choosy about the waste they take. For example, Gloucester store insists that the scrap it collects has to be clean, safe, and reuseable in its existing state. It has a policy of not taking anything that is aimed commercially at children - for instance, it turned down the offer of piles of plastic toys from cereal packets.

The centre offers in-service training days and school visits, and schools have used it to improve children's awareness of recycling and the environment. It also offers workshops run by artists to show pupils how to use scrap.

"It's really to help them realise that recycling and waste goes beyond the bin at home," says managing director Lin Mathews. "It tells the children that everybody has waste - companies have waste, this is where it comes from and this is what it can be used for."

For a full list of the UK's scrap stores: more about the Greater Manchester Play Resources Unit:

For more about Gloucestershire Resource Centre:

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