By Michelle M. Sharp, Founder and Content Creator of Meet the Minnesota Makers

Photo credit: Abby Boehm

Have you ever met someone who is really excited about the stuff that other people throw away? 

So much so that they started using the hashtag of “cooltrash” when they were a teenager? 

For Emma Crutcher of Cool Trash in South Minneapolis other people’s trash is literally her treasure. 

Her workshop’s raw materials are an amazing opportunity because single use plastics never go away. 

The same thing is true for multiple use durable plastic products such as kitchenware or hangers. 

Very little of it is truly recycled due to technological limitations, lack of economic incentives, and sometimes plastic products are simply put into curbside recycling without being clean and dry. 

Reusable bags, buying in bulk, and bag taxes are all steps to reduce our dependence on plastic. 


What if, instead of looking at plastics as a problem, we viewed it as an opportunity?  

Photo credit: Lindsey Flicker

Emma collects plastic waste from local businesses Marigold, Indeed Brewing Co., Blackstack Brewing, Milkweed Coffee, and more – the list is only growing – to make something new.

A self-described designer, inventor, and builder as a child growing up in the Ozarks, Emma moved to the Twin Cities to study at the University of Minnesota. She graduated with a double major in art and urban studies with a minor in sustainability. “My studies helped me to understand how urban communities depend on broader systems. I was able to get a better sense of how those systems work and the challenges where they fall short. When large-scale systems lack efficiency and functionality, many communities figure out how to fulfill needs for each other through forms of mutual aid,” 

Precious Plastic is a perfect example of this – it recognizes the inefficiency of municipal recycling systems and challenges communities to take recycling into their own

Photo credit: Lindsey Flicker

hands. Not only is the waste material diverted from landfills and waterways, functional, beautiful products and ultimately entire new economies rise from the use of this framework.

Emma discovered the Precious Plastic project, which was founded in 2013. This project hosts a suite of open source plans to build machines to recycle plastic on a small scale. “This movement challenges us to think about plastic as a valuable resource for building and creating,” explained Emma. “It’s durable, it’s everywhere, and it’s often free. I work within my community to turn this unwanted surplus into a desired end product.” 

In short, the Precious Plastic project makes a circular economy possible by taking a waste product and turning it into a resource. While open-source plans for plastic recycling machines are available and fully built machines are sold on the Precious Plastic Bazar, most people start on a DIY level with easily sourced second hand home appliances like a paper shredder, toaster oven, or panini press. The products made with these basic or bespoke recycling machines, along with the network of people working with recycled plastic, makes up a new economy out of trash. 

A former special education assistant for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Emma jumped into the Precious Plastic Project full time after COVID. “I had been interested for a long time. I didn’t know if I’d ever have the time to really get involved. After COVID, so many of us had different perspectives on the value of “work” and our jobs, it really felt like the right time to take the risk and try this thing out full-time.” shared Emma. “It has been a wild ride.” 

With her new sheet press in action, Emma’s garage workshop is a veritable wonderland of colorful plastics awaiting their new purpose. PP and HDPE plastics work the best for Cool Trash’s repurposing projects. A fundamental rule is that one should never mix plastics when creating something new. The item can no longer be recycled at the end of its life if it is comprised of different plastic types. Emma tests all the plastic she collects to sort out PET (#1) and PVC (#3) which are unsafe to work with on a DIY scale.

Emma traveled to the Netherlands and Belgium this spring to visit with creative Precious Plastic innovators. Her souvenirs include napkin rings, serving boards, building blocks as well as some “free” plastic waste that she collected along the way. She relished being an American in Europe on a mission to admire store fixtures and business interior build outs made of recycled plastic. “There’s so much that is possible: hidden

Photo credit: Lindsey Flicker

cabinets, table bases, tabletops, wraparound bars, kitchen countertops,” enthused Emma. “I achieved exactly what I wanted to do by making this trip. In addition to all the kind people I got to meet, I also learned technical information by seeing these processes in action.”

Photo credit: Lindsey Flicker

Back home in Minneapolis Emma teaches classes on plastic recycling, demonstrated the possibility of plastics at Art-A-Whirl, and has been restocking local stores with shrine shelves, pouches, and clip sets. 

Among Emma’s favorite projects have been the custom work that she’s done with local businesses. A recent collaboration with Indeed Brewing repurposed PakTech (the packaging that holds the four packs of cans together) into clipboards to which Indeed attaches their beer menus in their lively taproom in Northeast Minneapolis.. She also created store fixtures for Marigold including card holders and small riser tables that add visual interest to displays. 

With her new sheet press in action, Emma looks forward to the greater range of custom work she’ll be able to create. Her primary goal is to provide a locally-made, recycled option for retail fixtures and branded merchandise for small businesses. Cool Trash wares will be offered as an alternative to virgin plastic fixtures and merch manufactured overseas often using unfair labor practices and contributing to existing plastic pollution.

“I get to be creative everyday and use my skills to make the world a better place,” smiled Emma. “I love every part of this work—even sorting PakTechs by color, jobs that would probably seem tedious to most. I find it therapeutic. Doing taxes is the part that does not bring me joy.” 

As for the name of her business—“Since I was a teenager, anywhere I traveled I took pictures of trash I thought was cute or interesting and posted it on Instagram with the hashtag #cooltrash. When it came time to put a name on the work I was doing with recycled plastic, Cool Trash was a no-brainer. It’s perfect.”

Ready to see Emma in action?

 Emma is leading a DIY Plasticsmithing workshop at Marine Mills Folk School on July 13th – register here.

Cool Trash is a featured upcycle artist exhibiting and vending at this year’s Powderhorn Art Fair on August 3rd and 4th.

Emma will be giving presentations on the Precious Plastic program and Cool Trash in the Eco Experience building at the Minnesota State Fair where Cool Trash products will also be on display as examples of products made from recycled plastics in Minnesota. 

Emma is leading a DIY Plasticsmithing workshop at Chicago Avenue Center for Fire Arts on September 14th – register here.

Visit to see Emma’s portfolio of work done with fused plastic, hard plastic, and plarn (plastic yarn).. Join her on Patreon for behind the scenes content, workshop tours, and discounts on workshop products. 

Follow @cooltrashnet on Facebook and Instagram for upcoming events and new product releases. 

This feature is sponsored by the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota. Cool Trash is one of several innovators in sustainability that Meet the Minnesota Makers and Forever Green celebrate in this maker series. 

Forever Green develops and improves winter-hardy annual and perennial crops that protect soil and water health. These initiatives provide new economic opportunities for growers, industry and communities across Minnesota. Learn more about Forever Green and their community partners on their website

Visit or follow @meettheminnesotamakers on Facebook and Instagram to discover the farmers and innovators working to strengthen Minnesota’s local food networks. Meet the Minnesota Makers is a news site that connects you to the local food, farms, artists and artisans that make Minnesota thrive.




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