Reduce, Reuse, Resource: The Creative Reuse Warehouse keeps surplus materials out of the garbage

In the center of the sparse office of the Resource Center, a weathered former residence and warehouse located blocks from the southern border of the city, sits an unusual-looking chair. Bill Hurd, the volunteer in charge of the center’s store this particular Sunday, notes that the chair’s plates are reticulated to mimic the spine of a 5’11” male, each plank meeting the center of the vertebra and providing, in theory, exceptional comfort. (It does.) The chair and three cousins were built from planks taken from the floor of a building slated for destruction, which were then refined and refurbished in the Resource Center’s workshop. “That caught fire about eight years ago,” Hurd says. The center’s remaining reticulated chair, bought at an auction for over $2,000 and immediately re-donated, encapsulates the trajectory of the Resource Center’s glorious past and subdued present.

According to an April 1997 BioCycle article, the Resource Center was founded by chairman Ken Dunn in 1968 after he noticed Chicago stores burning excess cardboard. Over the next thirty years, the nonprofit expanded dramatically; by the early 1990s, it had as many as three hundred volunteers and forty-five employees. Through the city of Chicago, the Center had contracts to pick up the recycling in Hyde Park and other South Side neighborhoods, including that of twenty restaurants and grocery stores around the University of Chicago. Dunn claims that at a high point, the program collected the recycling of as many as sixty thousand people. Then, beginning in 1995, business contracted dramatically. First, the city dropped its contract with the Resource Center when it decided to begin collecting curbside recycling itself; shortly thereafter, the fire that destroyed the center’s workshop occurred, and financial troubles forced the organization to move to its current location in the far south neighborhood of Riverdale from its former recycling site at 60th Street and Dorchester.

Most of the Resource Center’s energies and revenue are now directed toward collecting the recycling of its remaining patrons and to maintaining the Creative Reuse Warehouse. Originally a spin-off project begun in November 1995, the Reuse Warehouse collects donations of unwanted excess inventory from companies, and then sells it at very low cost. Some companies donate for tax deductions, but many do so if they “order too much, or the company goes out of business… or a name change [occurs],” says Hurd. “Most [businesses] that [the center] has a subscription with require that we go there and take everything,” he clarifies. “When it was really going good, eight, maybe ten percent of the stuff went into the store…the rest was shredded or sent to steel manufacturers and such.” Nevertheless, the spaces occupied by the Reuse project are crammed with efficiently organized envelopes, phones, VHS tapes, screws, glass squares, cabinets, shelves and stationery.

Hurd explains that the majority of the Reuse Warehouse’s customers are educators. “Chicago State sends their teachers here to take a look at things that can be of use in the classroom, since teachers are on a limited budget.” Some of the uses are fairly creative–one teacher took a set of construction tile and counter samples in order to demonstrate to children what different materials felt like. “When [director Ken Dunn] was going full-blast,” Hurd notes, “teachers from all over the city would come [to the center], and he would give seminars on using some of the things.” Another major customer is the city of Chicago, in particular the Chicago Park District, which is Hurd’s regular employer.

Hurd has had no customers today, however, and throughout the diligently kept corridors on either side of which sits industrial junk, there permeates a sense of decay. The feeling is even more pronounced in the actual warehouse space. Though “the majority of the stuff leaves within a reasonable length of time,” Hurd says, “there are a lot of things that have been [in the warehouse] for ages,” and the Resource Center also maintains two other locked warehouses filled with additional bric-a-brac. Peering down the dim hallways, it’s hard not to wonder how the center plans to get rid of its wares. But there remain gems amid the dust–Hurd indicates three separate containers of new sales units donated by Starbucks, which had ordered too many. The wood is of high enough quality that it may be able to be turned into inexpensive shelving. The Resource Center may not possess the scale and ambition it had before the string of disasters in the late ‘90s, but its efforts to encourage sustainable use of resources in an urban environment remain very much alive.
Creative Reuse Warehouse, 222 E. 135th Pl. Monday-Friday, 10am-3pm; Saturday, 10am-6pm. resourcecenterchicago.org