Chicago’s architectural heritage is a lifelong passion for Elise Zelechowski.
Elise Zelechowski wants you to rethink garbage. “In this country, we have a pretty decent understanding of recycling,” says the 34-year-old Chicagoan. “But one thing we still struggle with is what to do with the things we don’t want—waste and garbage.”
Early on, she understood the value of repurposed materials. “I grew up in Chicago. My grandfather was from Poland, and his first job in the US was on Maxwell Street. Having immigrant grandparents who were extremely resourceful, we were very aware of how we used things in our house.” It took an education in the Pacific Northwest to deepen her sense of sustainability, time on Martinique to better understand society’s relationship to waste, and a stint in Paris to decide there was more to life than American consumerism.
She came home and got to work, founding the Rebuilding Exchange, a Chicago-based not-for-profit organization that reclaims and salvages wood, windows, doors, hinges, and more for reuse. Since its inception in 2009, RX has made more than $2 million worth of reusable materials available to the public. “What we need to start understanding is that those materials are really the natural resources of tomorrow,” Zelechowski says. “We’ve extracted so many of our natural resources already that the waste stream has all of this great material to work with.”
While building owners must pay for deconstruction, which is often more time-consuming than straight demolition, they are able to make up some or all of the cost through a tax-deductible donation to the Rebuilding Exchange. There are other benefits as well. “When I originally conceptualized this program, I had a very strong commitment to figuring out how this could connect a new, emerging sustainability economy with people who have barriers to employment,” Zelechowski says. Partnerships with The ReUse People and more recently, OAI, Inc. and The Cara Program, deliver job training programs in field deconstruction, warehousing/retail management, and furniture making. To date, close to 100 people have graduated from the program, a few of whom RX employs in its warehouse in the industrial corridor north of Bucktown.
Zelechowski’s solution for better waste management and community building also includes RX Made, a line of furniture and home goods that turns materials from the waste stream into well-designed, well-made benches, tables, and clocks.
Recently, the 34-year-old was named a Chicago Community Trust Fellow, which has her even more excited about the future of this green movement. “I think that there is a whole world of entrepreneurship associated with the waste stream that we haven’t uncovered yet,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity here, and we are totally changing the way people feel about waste.”