Atlantic Cities

Why This Chicago Non-Profit Wants Your Trash

Why This Chicago Non-Profit Wants Your Trash
Couresy: Rebuilding Exchange

Chicago's Rebuilding Exchange is looking to do two goods with one organization. The job-creation outfit, founded in February 2009, teaches its students how to recycle trash into a variety of furniture. "We're looking to create a market for deconstruction reuse and use it as a job training opportunity for disadvantaged communities," says Elise Zelechowski, the deputy executive director of the Delta Institute, which runs the Rebuilding Exchange.

Today, more than 100 people have completed the Rebuilding Exchange training, and 2011 revenue from sales of reclaimed wood, furniture and workshops topped $200,000. Zelechowski expects to double that total this year while diverting 2,000 tons of waste material from the landfill for recycling.

Until now, trainees have been recent prison releasees. Starting in June, a new partnership with the Cara Program will bring in people with a variety of barriers to employment, including homelessness, substance abuse, and criminal convictions.

Their training includes deconstruction, warehousing and woodworking. Of the first group of graduates, nearly 9 in 10 found work in retail, warehousing, furniture-making, or woodworking. One accepted a job with another development nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation, on the city's South Side.

About 80 percent of Rebuilding Exchange's waste material comes from renovations, the rest from deconstruction. The material is either readied for re-sale to local businesses or used by RX Made, a line of reclaimed wood furniture built by staff and trainees and designed by local professionals.

The line includes tables, chairs, coat racks and other pieces that can now be found at some of Chicago's hipper bars and restaurants, like Longman & Eagle, 2 Sparrows, Maria's Packaged Goods, The Southern and Bang Bang Pie Shop.


Courtesy: Rebuilding Exchange

Nearly 100 volunteers help Rebuilding's 12-person staff organize deconstruction training and furniture-making, as well as several public courses and workshops launched last fall. Among the most popular are the Make-It/Take-It series, in which students make an end table, mirror, or bench, and take it home. About 1,000 people have taken the courses, which cost from $65 to $150 and last three or four weeks.

The organization also hosts DIY fairs and antique and flea market events at its warehouse headquarters near the Chicago River. Still, Rebuilding receives half its annual budget from donors like the Chicago Community Trust, Polk Brothers Foundation, and Boeing. Zelechowski is confident the balance will continue to tilt away from subsidies. “We've proved that this is a viable industry, a real business model, that when handled properly, materials in the waste stream can become valuable resources,” she says.

There should be more of those materials in the future. The board of Cook County, which includes Chicago and is the country's second most populous county, approved a new management plan for solid waste this week that emphasizes reuse and recycling.

A similar emphasis could be expanded beyond Chicago. The Construction Materials Recycling Association, based in Eola, IL, estimates that Americans generate some 350 million tons of construction and demolition waste each year, though EPA estimates are lower.

Recent studies from California, Washington, Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin suggest an average C&D waste generation rate of 1.7 pounds per person per day. Expanded nationally, these figures would mean the U.S. generates more than 500 million tons of C&D waste each year.

Accurate, recent data are hard to find, admits Zelechowski. But she's confident the foreclosure crisis has increased unused building waste. She's begun talking with people in Detroit and other distressed cities to help launch similar initiatives.

“We're really interested in working with community-based groups and municipalities in the Great Lakes region to emulate this model,” she says. “We've been at it for a while, we're still learning and continuing to innovate, and it's important to achieve some scale and make it competitive."

David Lepeska writes about urban issues and the environment for The New York Times, Monocle, and other publications. He lives in Chicago. All posts »

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