By Elana Seifert

“Chicago’s been good to us, and we’ve been committed to the community in return–we put back whenever we can,” says Richard Schuessler, who’s been president of Schuessler Knitting Mills since taking over from his father in 1966. Putting back means scholarships for kids in Cabrini-Green, profit-sharing for employees, and environmentally friendly business practices. The plant has recycling programs and ships some of its products in recycled boxes. Three years ago it began using fleece made from recycled plastic bottles.

But it wasn’t possible to close the loop in every area. “One of the last things we’ve not been able to keep out of landfill are the cones on which our yarn is wrapped when it comes from our dye house,” says Schuessler. “In the past we’d given some of these to the Children’s Museum, but we just produced so many of them that they couldn’t keep up with us. We also had a lot of clippings that were sized wrong and things like that, and the recycler that picked up our stuff couldn’t use them.”

Then last fall one of Schuessler’s supervisors told him about a place that “recycled” the unrecyclable: the Creative Reuse Warehouse. This two-year-old project of the Resource Center–a nonprofit organization that does residential, commercial, and industrial recycling–takes items that would otherwise be destined for a landfill or traditional recycling and makes them available to teachers to use in Chicago’s public schools.

Schuessler’s knit scraps and plastic yarn cones now fill containers alongside stacks of slightly damaged paper, used books, odd-lot items, and bins of various manufacturing remnants. Some items are priced–vinyl runners are 25 cents a yard, a ream of paper is $3, cabinet doors run from $1 to $3 apiece. Everything that’s not marked–various rubber, ceramic, and metal items–is $3 per bagful.

“When I first got involved in recycling back in 1969,” says Ken Dunn, founder of the Resource Center, “I noticed that teachers were all the time needing things for their classrooms and visiting recycling sites to get them. From the beginning teachers were saying, ‘Could you save these baby-food jars for me?’ or ‘If you get more paper like this, save it.'” Dunn started saving items and setting them in the hallway of his apartment, and teachers would come and pick up what they needed. But, he says, “I realized that was no way to run a store.” So Dunn set aside one room at the recycling site at 60th Street and Dorchester as a “teacher’s room,” and teachers could take a bagful of whatever they needed for $3.

Christine Kordiuk, who came to work at the Resource Center four years ago, saw more possibilities when businesses started to call to find out if the center would take extra items or manufacturing leftovers. “Sometimes they’d call with a sense that what they had had some value, that it wasn’t just garbage. Then when we saw it I was like, ‘This shouldn’t just be recycled. Someone can use this.'”

Kordiuk considered opening something akin to a consignment store. “I was just talking about the idea. But Ken’s a real ‘let’s get a barn and put on a show’ kind of guy. One day he came in and said to me, ‘I’ve got a warehouse for you.'”

The 11,000-square-foot building at 721 W. O’Brien had once held damaged railroad freight, and in the 1970s it had served as a distribution site for an organic food co-op, before being converted to a candy manufacturing site. In November 1995 Dunn and Kordiuk began moving in, melding Kordiuk’s consignment shop idea with Dunn’s teacher’s room.

Today the warehouse holds everything from old National Geographic magazines to what Dunn calls “random, unintelligible pieces which when in context with others can be made into a design.” Between 200 and 250 schoolteachers (in addition to artists, art therapists, parents, and thrift shoppers) visit the warehouse in an average week. Finished projects, from detailed mosaics to science projects, are kept in a display case.

Many teachers are happy to get the materials without paying through the nose for them. “When people donate, they are in their own way supporting education,” says Ruth Life, an administrator at the Mason School in North Lawndale, who was at the warehouse in early July to pick up items for summer classes. “Ninety percent of the teachers in Chicago, when they go shopping for something for their class, it’s something they’re doing themselves. Many times the school just doesn’t have the extra money to do these kinds of things.”

Kordiuk says few businesses ask for documents that would allow them to take a tax deduction, even though that’s one of the carrots she holds out when she makes calls soliciting donations. “It turns out in many cases we’re really saving businesses money they would have spent on disposal,” she says. “And some people, surprisingly, just aren’t interested.” Schuessler, for instance, says his company started sending its remnants to Creative Reuse “because it was the right thing to do.”

Walking into the warehouse may feel like stepping into a pack rat’s basement. “When I first came here I wasn’t too excited,” says Alice Smith, a special education teacher at Crane Tech. “I thought, this is garbage–what the hell can I do with it? Then after your imagination kicks in you see the possibilities.”

Smith was one of about a dozen teachers and as many students at Creative Reuse one recent morning. She and two assistants, who were there to pick up materials their students will use to create musical instruments that will be displayed on July 24 at Navy Pier, discussed how they could cut down two six-foot tubes of heavy cardboard and cover them to make drums. Not far away Daniel Williams, a junior at Chicago Vocational High School, plucked out a melody on a piano someone had dropped off. When he finished he set out looking for a piece of wood–“I’ll know it when I see it”–from which to fashion a guitar.

“About 80 percent of our time is spent organizing items–moving, sorting, stacking, shelving,” says Kordiuk. “There are some areas where we still are figuring out our philosophy. Ken and I are always going back and forth on how we should be doing things. People drop things on our door or just decide we could use them and show up with the truck to unload. What can you say at that point? Do we reject them because they don’t fit our mission? Or do we handle them? It’s frustrating because it can take my focus away from making the space for and bringing in materials for educational purposes. But then again, I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for materials that show up here. So if a couch or a refrigerator–things we absolutely do not take–shows up, we’re responsible for it.”

But Dunn believes that part of his responsibility includes not accepting everything that comes through the door. “We have to make sure that once a teacher sees it, we can have a certain item here. Which is why we’ve pretty much focused on the industrial waste stream–so we can keep a continuous supply of items. That way, when a project works out there’s a hundred more of a given item for the next class.”

Is it worth the trouble? “I never dreamed of spending so much time sorting through stuff like this,” says Kordiuk, “but it’s evolving into my dream job. I can’t imagine doing anything else. How many hours a week do I do this? Fifty, maybe 60. I guess it’s your dream job when you’re not even aware of how many hours you’re working.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Christine Kordiuk, Ken Dunn photo by Jon Randolph.