It all started with a chance meeting. 

The Happy Returns art studio and Alt_Chicago (pronounced “Alt Space Chicago), a nonprofit that seeks to improve communities like Austin through art, both operate out of the basement of an Austin loft studio building at 5339 W. Lake St. One day, around two years ago, Happy Returns co-directors Tom Burtonwood and Cody Norman ran into alt_chicagoG co-founder Jon Veal in a hallway. They talked about their mutual interest in creating something that supports the community around them, combats harmful narratives and improves environmental sustainability.

That conversation led to the creation of Redemptive Plastics. The project hired a mix of West Side residents and people from elsewhere in the city to melt down used laundry detergent containers, forge them into plastic “beams” and use those beams to make benches. Their first goal is relatively modest – to build three benches in public locations around the Central/Lake Green Line el station – with the benches scheduled to be installed and unveiled in early June. But in the long run, the project hopes to continue making more benches, training more local residents as they go.

Cody Norman shows a beam being made out of melted-down laundry detergent containers. | Igor Studenkov

Norman and Burtonwood decided to launch Happy Returns in 2020, and they decided to move to that building because Burtonwood was already familiar with it – he had a studio there in 2016-2017. By that point, Norman and his wife moved to Oak Park, near Austin Boulevard, and he appreciated having a studio he could easily bike to.

Veal was an Austin native, and fellow Alt_Chicago co-founder Jordan Campbell worked as a substitute teacher at Austin College and Career Academy high school, 231 N. Pine Ave. Veal previously told this newspaper that they wanted to “reframe the narrative, the narrative of disinvestment, the narrative of negativity” on the West and South sides, as well as to inspire people to take control of their destiny by “taking ownership of our community.”

Norman recalled that one of the things they talked about in the hallway was the lingering impact of plastic waste, which doesn’t break down easily. They kept talking about it “since probably 2021” and developed the idea by early 2022. A $65,000 grant from the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation’s E(art)H Chicago program helped to kickstart the project in July of that year.

Alt_Chicago Jordan Campbell, Tom Burtonwood and Cody Norman. | Igor Studenkov

Alt_Chicago COO Curry Greene said their goal was threefold – to reduce plastic waste, provide employment opportunities for local residents and address a major symptom of disinvestment in communities like Austin.

“One of the signs of disinvestment in the community is trash [on the ground],” she said, adding that “it isn’t that the community itself is dirty” – it’s that there are fewer garbage cans on the streets people can throw trash into. 

Greene said they originally thought they would have to pick up laundry containers off the street – but it turned out that laundromats welcomed someone taking the used containers off their hands. After all, she said, hauling waste costs them money.

“Now, we’re inundated with plastics every week,” she said.

Workers cut them apart and thoroughly clean them of any detergent residue. The large pieces are then sliced into tiny pieces, and those pieces are mixed together, melted down and poured into a mold that creates board-like plastic beams. They then use those beams to make benches. Happy Returns and Alt_Chicago spaces are close to each other, and work is spread across both. 

Beams made out of melted-down laundry detergent containers. | Igor Studenkov

“It’s a true collaboration,” Norman said. “The only thing that’s separating us is a hallway.”

For the first cohort, they hired 10 people. About two-thirds of them came from either Austin or another West Side neighborhood. Greene said they used their networks to try to get the word out.

“It was really important to Jon that we offer jobs to people who live in the community,” she said. “We really need jobs here, so it was really important to him and for all of us to offer jobs. We [recruited] heavily in the Austin community, we had a workshop back in October, just inviting people to see the process and sign up as part of the cohort.”

Norman said they train the members of the group. While the first cohort will only work through the end of spring, the hope is that the skills and experience will help them find jobs elsewhere, or work on their own art projects. 

Greene said they wouldn’t start the search for a new cohort until later this summer, but anyone interested can apply by filling out the volunteer interest form on the project website and noting they want to be hired in the message field.

The benches will be installed at the Austin branch library, 5615 W. Race Ave., Harambee Community Garden, 5701 W. Midway Park, and a privately owned vacant lot at 327 N. Waller Ave. Redemptive Plastics will hold a grand opening event.

From there, Redemptive Plastics plans to continue making benches, and they are considering other uses for the beams, such as fences and even school rulers. They have even been toying with the idea of making a whole playground out of recycled plastic. 

As the interview concluded, Green and Norman made a point to mention someone who wouldn’t be there for the festivities. Veal passed away suddenly on Dec. 21, 2022. 

“He was a huge part in the [project’s conception], coming up with the name, Redemptive Plastics, and the vision of the project,” Greene said. “It was a huge loss for us, and we’re committed to continue this vision and staying true to his values.”

Those values, Norman said, are “thinking about the community, and sustainability in the community” and making sure that the community has meaningful input on anything they do. 

“We just want to make sure that the West Side gets the opportunities,” he added.

Editor’s note: The original version of the article described Greene as Alt_Chicago’s Chief Executive Officer. She is, in fact, its Chief Operating Officer. Austin Weekly News regrets the error.

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...