Melissa Wenzel wears a hard hat on a job site to deconstruct a building.

Keeping Building Materials Out of Landfills Is Heroic Work

Editor’s note: Parts of this interview were conducted by Allison Bell, author of the book “Herocrats: A Guide for Government Workers Leading Change” and the founder and CEO of Bellwether Consulting. Her work appeared originally on LinkedIn.

Melissa Wenzel donates blood, promotes the support of minority- and women-owned businesses, advocates for e-bikes at the Eco-Experience building at the Minnesota State Fair each year and rides a Pedego e-bike herself year-round. She co-chairs the civic advocacy group Sustain Saint Paul and is its most visible, vocal champion.

Show up at a public hearing for bicycle infrastructure in St. Paul — whether it’s the Summit Avenue Regional Trail or the updated bike plan — and you’ll find her testifying on behalf of young people who deserve a cooler planet and safer opportunities to ride.

A lower leg wearing a sock with the word "hellraiser" on it and a graphic of a woman on a bike.
Melissa Wenzel wore bicycle “hellraiser” socks to testify before the Planning Commission about the Saint Paul Bicycle Plan.

It’s no surprise, then, that Wenzel, 46, a self-described “community cheerleader,” works on sustainability and environmental justice for her day job. A 20-plus-year employee of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Wenzel is now the organization’s first full-time built environment sustainability administrator, a position she has held since September 2019. She advocates for the reuse and recycling of commercial and residential buildings and building materials in a state that already has a strong foundation of recycling, she says.

Wenzel spoke in February with “Herocrats” author Allison Bell and more recently with (where she is a contributor) to explain why a sustainable built environment is essential for the climate and why she’s using her extensive network to spread the word about it. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

A picture of Melissa Wenzel, smiling, wearing a hoodie with the words "Build Reuse" on the front. There is an inserted background of a pristine, sun-dappled forest.
Melissa Wenzel, the state’s first built environment sustainability administrator. Photo: MPCA

What does the term “sustainable built environment” mean?

A sustainable built environment is a topic that is becoming more popular in climate change conversations. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we generate twice as much construction demolition debris as we do household trash. We do so much for household materials like recycling, composting, reducing and donating, but we don’t necessarily focus those same efforts on buildings and building materials.

A sustainable built environment is important because it can support and protect community health, equity and resiliency by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, regenerating community resources and protecting the natural environment.

What is the difference between demolishing and deconstructing a building?

You cannot compare demolition to deconstruction; that’s my new narrative. They’re not apples to apples. It’s one person wrecking versus a crew of people carefully unbuilding a structure where the materials can then be donated or sold to offset those costs.

“Demolition” has the stigma of blow it up, tear it down, throw it away. I use “building removal” more often, and there are multiple ways to do that. Concrete is recyclable; wood can be ground up into wood chips. We are tearing down buildings to replace them with other buildings. The carbon intensity of buildings may require us to rethink.

A graphic from the MPCA with the title "Grants available" and a circular arrow with the words "reuse rent repair" on it.
Wenzel secured $2 million in state funding during the 2023 legislative session to create community grants for a sustainable built environment. Learn more here. Image: MPCA

And what is the role of state government, or the MPCA, in helping to create a sustainable built environment?

It’s a huge change to have more local governments — non-metro, counties, cities, townships — offering diversion and reuse programs. Those allow people to drop off building materials, for free or a charge. Those materials that are good enough quality can be donated or sold. And it supports a circular economy. To be able to invest in people and keep resources in use, that’s where the government funding is starting to be appropriate.

As far as I know, Minnesota might be the only state government agency that has a position like this. However, I’m part of an extremely collaborative build-reuse community, and I get to work with and learn from people across the nation. A national trade association called Build Reuse created a Wiki that shares resources and case studies for people and organizations to learn about the reuse of building materials.

You model collaboration in your volunteerism. How is collaboration at work in this role?

I work with cross-sector partners like architects, builders, manufacturers, deconstructors, researchers, recyclers, waste management staff and government staff to develop and implement programs and policies concerning sustainability in the built environment and building material management.

An example of connection is our support of Better Futures Minnesota, a nonprofit that provides skills and job opportunities for people who have been recently released from incarceration. Participants get to learn skills that could get them jobs in appliance repairs, lawn care and snow removal, and deconstruction of buildings and structures, primarily single-family homes. With the rise in lumber prices since the pandemic, that last set of skills has become more sought after in the construction industry, and builders can reuse quality wood for other projects.

Melissa Wenzel, wearing safety glasses and smiling, holds a hammer and pry bar, with several long, reclaimed pieces of lumber in the background.
Melissa Wenzel was quoted in the Star Tribune recently defending LumberStash, a Minneapolis man’s effort to reclaim and reuse lumber that he collects on his cargo bike. (Photo provided)

What skills or emotional intelligence do you bring to your job?

My networking and collaboration is my number one skillset. Routinely, I get calls from people saying they would really like to have this building deconstructed, or they can’t fathom a 120-year-old school in western Minnesota being sent to the landfill. It may be a cabin, a deck or an entire school. I can’t save them all, but I certainly do try.

I’m constantly connecting people. I don’t have deconstruction training. But why not partner up with Habitat for Humanity ReStore? If we can reuse office furniture, there are a lot of great programs out there. We have a foundation of reuse in Minnesota, from household material reuse and recycling.

The front cover of the book "Herocrats: A Guide for Government Workers Leading Change." The graphic shows a hand holding a torch with clouds in the background.

So, you’ve been dubbed a Herocrat. Do you embrace the word “hero”?

I have a deep sense of pride about making Minnesota a better place to live. When I started my MPCA career, fairly new out of college, I didn’t think I’d still be there 22 years later. I’ve helped protect water quality. I’m now helping to keep building materials and even entire buildings out of landfills because of encouragement, support and funding. I know I do good work. I’m not humble in the bigger picture sense. But the word “hero” is not one I’m familiar with. When you’re just doing your job, and you’re connecting people to one another who are making a difference, you realize that many people within a changing system deserve the label “hero.”

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Amy Gage is managing editor of A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging ( and contributes to the Minnesota Women's Press.