Zero Waste at Rebuilding Exchange — it’s Scraptacular!

by Emma Vuillemot for SUST 240 Waste

Photo from Rebuilding Exchange

Roosevelt University’s SUST 240 Waste class, led by Prof. Graham Pickren, recently visited Rebuilding Exchange, a non-profit social enterprise (501c3) located along the Chicago River in Bucktown. Rebuilding Exchange, RX, is a facility that promotes sustainable deconstruction practices and stores donated, salvaged building materials in their warehouse which is repurposed and available for sale to the public. RX’s mission is to divert valuable building materials from landfills and encourage the practice of reuse.

Unlike your traditional recycling company that focuses on plastic bottles, paper, and metal, Rebuilding Exchange works to recover construction and demolition waste (C&D) to give it a new life. In the C&D waste stream, concrete is the largest category of material generated by weight, followed by wood products. The wood used for building houses are likely to be made of trees that took generations to grow. In 2014 EPA estimated there to 37.3 tons of wood products found at C&D sites (Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet) most of which would be recycled for reuse. Other materials like clay tiles, metal piping, and fixtures would be landfilled. Enterprises like RX play a crucial role in maximizing reuse of hardwoods and wiring, which provides an alternative source of timber to traditional forestry.

(Data Table from EPA)

RX receives lumber, counter tops, window panes, toilets, fencing, appliances, flooring and other materials found houses slated for demolition. Blue Earth Deconstruction, a specialized demolition service based in Illinois, partners with RX and can dismantle residential properties with a salvage rate of “about 95 percent of what’s in the house” When choosing deconstruction over demolition, the client (usually a developer or builder) receives a large tax benefit for donating the goods to RX. Of course, this also diverts a large amount of waste from landfills.

RX demonstrates an exceptional model of a circular economy, one of the themes discussed in SUST240. Rather than the valuable materials having a linear lifespan straight to the landfills, the products are recycled back into the economy either through the manufacturing sector, retail sector, or consumer sector.

All of the materials RX receives from locals or their deconstruction partners are brought over to their warehouse to be itemized, inventoried and marked for retail. Their facility is open to the public and the types of consumers range from aspiring artists looking for unique earthy and rustic materials to contractors choosing lightly-used countertops and cabinet sets. RX and deconstruction services are also able to offer opportunities for jobs and education on sustainable practices. Their job training and apprenticeship programs focus on populations with obstacles to regular employment, such as people with criminal histories. This social justice mission makes RX a truly special kind of institution.

Our class was given a tour of the grounds RX Education Manager Carrie Rasor. The tour of the facility included spending time in the woodshop, where RX offers monthly workshops on furniture making using reclaimed materials. Participants in these workshops have opportunities to create bookshelves, chairs, and even a dining room table. RX has also created their own furniture line “RX Made” and have custom services for clients.

Our group participated in a workshop called Scraptacular, where we made small custom projects from scrapped pieces of lumber, metal fittings, spare tiling, and organic shaped materials. Fueled by innovation, creativity, and curiosity, SUST 240 made pieces ranging from bookends to keyholders to windchimes!

Rebuilding Exchange is truly an institution that fulfills the triple bottom line of sustainability – they work on social issues, they work to conserve resources, and they provide economic opportunities to members of the community.

Emma Vuillemot is a junior Sustainability Studies major and Math minor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Roosevelt University.

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