Yesterday, accompanied by my buddy Michael Levinton, artistic director of downtown theater company Little Lord, I had the chance to step inside one of the country’s most unique recycling organizations: Materials for the Arts or MFTA.
Founded in 1979 as a division of the New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs with support from the city's Sanitation and Education departments, MFTA bills itself as New York’s Premier Reuse Center. Or, for a first time visitor like myself, MFTA’s 35,000-square-foot Long Island City warehouse came off as New York’s Premier Glitter-covered Goodwill. Filled to the brim with cast-off Christmas ornaments, fabric, paint, books, craft supplies, and an entire posse of mannequins, MFTA is a truly special place. Just be sure to bring your hand sanitizer, patience, and creative-thinking cap. 
Here’s how MFTA works: Donors, both individuals and organizations (I spotted donations from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, David Stark Designs, Ann Taylor and others), drop off or arrange for the pick-up of unneeded materials that in many cases would go to landfills. MFTA accepts pretty much everything under the sun — textiles, office supplies, household items, frames, decorating supplies, furniture, appliances, you name it — with the exception of things like bedding, food, clothing and lead-based paint.
The always-popular fabric section at the MFTA warehouse
Once a donation enters MFTA’s ever-revolving inventory, it's officially up for grabs. However, not everyone can stop on by MFTA’s warehouse and stock up on free crap (and I use this term in the most polite way). Recipients must apply to become a MFTA shopper and membership is limited to nonprofit arts and cultural groups, NYC Department of Education art teachers, government agencies, and social service, health, and environmental organizations with arts departments. Shopping trips are made by appointment and in many instances there’s a limit to what one can walk out with.
Reads the MFTA website: “Recipients who use supplies from Materials for the Arts help to protect and sustain the environment by making use of hundreds of tons of materials that would otherwise end up in our landfills. Recipients use these materials to teach our children, invigorate our museums, and delight audiences throughout New York City.” Currently, MFTA serves more than 4,210 recipients.
On my visit to the MFTA warehouse, rubber bands, buttons, zippers, coffee mugs, dismembered mannequin arms, humidifiers and Halloween masks were in heavy supply. The fabric and the trim and notions sections seemed the most popular with MFTA shoppers who, at times, were a bit wild-eyed and aggressive. I even witnessed one verbal altercation in the ribbon aisle. Imagine “Supermarket Sweep” meets a close-out sale at Michael's meets a gigantic estate sale and you’ve somewhat got the picture.
Levinton, whom I assisted as he shopped for an upcoming production, picked up six yellow fleece blankets, plastic laundry baskets, several yards of sparkly fabric, poster board, and a few mannequin hands for good measure.
Who needs a headless mannequin? 
                   Pens!                                                A satisfied MFTA shopper  

Although many New Yorkers who qualify as recipients are already well-aware of MFTA, new donors are always needed to keep the merchandise fresh and full of surprises. Are you a New Yorker also in the process of moving, remodeling or uncluttering? Simply need to unload an old ottoman or silverware set? Consider donating to Materials For the Arts to help support the arts and education in NYC and keep mannequin hands out of landfills.

To follow Materials for the Arts-related goings-on, check out the MFTA's blog or Twitter account. MFTA was also just the subject of an excellent New York Times article on how teachers are making good use of the organization. According to the article, staffers from 650 NYC schools visited the MFTA warehouse in 2010.

Any MFTA recipients out there? What’s been the best/most useful/weirdest “find” that you’ve come across during an MFTA shopping trip? Non-New Yorkers: Is there an arts-specific reuse program that you support in your city?

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

New York's temple of reuse: A visit to Materials for the Arts
If you're a New Yorker in the process of remodeling, uncluttering or moving consider donating any cast-offs to Materials for the Arts.