The Hunt for Junk



Schools need a lot of stuff, but more often than not, they don’t have a lot of money. Many of the materials you need for a lot of our favorite maker starter projects are likely already available around the homes of teachers and students.

As part of our Back-to-School series, we share our golden checklist for scavenging for materials: the kinds of items that schools sometimes have on-hand for their “invention bin” or “idea box.” When we compiled this list years ago, we checked in with the Make Play Day Crew of Maker Faire Bay Area 2008 along with Anne Richardson and Karen Wilkinson from the Exploratorium in San Francisco and John Galinato from the Build-It-Yourself Workshop in Cambridge, Mass. These objects work really well for mechanical elements or for decorative pieces; kids use these random odds and ends for brainstorming or enhancement of projects. Some are raw materials that go into building a project, others might spark an idea for a whole project. (“Gosh, what would I do with 1,000 bottlecaps?”)

PrintYou can often collect plenty of this kind of “junk” material from your students’ families and neighbors trying to de-clutter, or encourage your students to start a box at home where they can divert some of the material from their trash can to the crafty hands of their classmates. The most ordinary thing may be the perfect item to use in a maker project! Find supplies in the kitchen, garage, shed, or even under your bed— or head out to your local shops to stock up. We include a list of good reduce-reuse-recycle targets to rescue on their way to the trash can below. We’ve also taken some of them to adapt into a game, The Hunt for Junk (see right). It asks kids to collect:

  • Whole, uncreased, pieces of paper (any thickness, any color) that you were going to throw into the recycling bin, stacked as tall as your pinky toe
  • 10 different colors of plastic and metal caps — and rinse them!
  • 9 rubber bands
  • 8 balls of string or yarn (any size)
  • 7 empty and flattened paperboard boxes (like cereal): one for each color of the rainbow
  • 6 different sticks (toothpicks, chopsticks, popsicle sticks, skewers, twigs, etc.)
  • 5 feet of tubes (can be from paper towels, toilet paper, or poster shipping containers)
  • 4 square feet of unwanted but clean piece of fabric (can be old clothing or bedsheet)
  • 2 old, unwanted CD or DVD (duds / junk mail)
  • 3 small boxes that nest inside one another (progressively larger)
  • 1 toy or something goofy the size of a coffee mug or smaller that nobody will miss if it gets repurposed into a craft project

Michael of the Play Day crew, an early feature of Maker Faire once told me, “One of the best things about this event is the imagination of the kids. They always come up with the darn’dest things out of whatever they’re given.”

What can you collect for reuse by your creative students?


— Paper towel tubes
— Toilet paper tubes (best if they don’t have any remnants of toilet paper on them to remind people of the origin)
— Paperboard boxes (such as cereal), flattened
— Small gift boxes (no bigger than a Rubik’s cube)
— Cigar boxes
— Strawberry baskets
— Mesh bags from onions, avocados, etc.
— RINSED plastic caps from juice / milk / soda bottles
— Metal bottle caps
— Corks
— RINSED 2-liter soda bottles
— Small styrofoam food trays that can be crafted into wings for things that fly
— Medium-sized styrofoam pieces that can be built upon (bigger than a golf ball, smaller than a cereal box)
— Plastic Easter eggs
— Flm canisters
— Milk crates

Picnic Supplies

— Small plates (paper or plastic)
— Utensils
— Chopsticks
— Toothpicks
— Popsicle sticks
— Straws
— Plastic sheets

Crafts & Sewing

— Dowels
— Bed sheet (any size) you’ve been meaning to get rid of.
— Fabric, can be swatches / scraps
— Feathers
— Buttons
— Beads
— Glitter
— Yarn
— String
— Twine
— Fishing line microfilament
— Pipe cleaners
— Pompoms
— Googly eyes
— hot glue sticks

Office / School Supplies

— rulers
— tape (scotch, electrical, or masking)
— paper clips
— rubber bands
— CDs and DVDs (duds / junk mail)
— Foam core
— Construction paper
— Whole, non-creased, pieces of paper that you were going to throw into the recycling bin (any color)
— Stickers
— Pens, pencils, sharpies, etc. (working)


— printers are especially popular for their many re-usable parts: fans, motors, etc.


— Old trophies
— Unwanted color Kodak slides
— Other evocative objects for crafty projects, but not too weird and unusable (“no dumping!”)
— Any decorative or buildable materials you have lying around in somewhat large amounts that you’re not using, but that you think would be good for experimenting with

Hints for Scavenging Materials

All items should be unused or very thoroughly rinsed, clean, nontoxic, non-brittle (e.g. no glass) usable, and pre-sorted. Ask your scavengers to keep them separated in bags and baggies so that you won’t have to re-sort the items. Unsorted items may end up in the trash unused!

Use your common sense: items with no obvious problems (for example, chicken wire, broken glass, TV sets, blades, rusty hardware wouldn’t be good).

Also, if there is any text or images (like the paper and the CDs) make sure that it’s all rated-G! If items have weird or obscure logos on them, though, that’s OK!

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Michelle, or Binka, makes . While at Maker Media, she oversaw publications, outreach, and programming for kids, families, and schools. Before joining Maker Media in 2007, she worked at the Exploratorium, in Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, and as a curriculum designer for various publishers and educational researchers. When she’s not supporting future makers, including her two young sons, Binka does some making of her own, most often as a visual artist.

View more articles by Michelle "Binka" Hlubinka


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