Life is abundant in The Plant. It’s a bit ironic since it once used to be a bastion of death. But within the brick and concrete walls of the former meat packing plant on the south side of Chicago, flowers bloom beneath bright lights in the basement; algae funnels through tubes in front of the windows; bees buzz around hives on the roof. The Plant is alive.
This is exactly what the owners of The Plant, sustainable developers Bubbly Dynamics, wanted. They bought the former Peer Foods meat packing plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in 2010. In 2011, the nonprofit Plant Chicago—nicknamed The Plant by its tenants, owners, and customers — was born. The goal: make it into a hub of sustainability-focused research and unique businesses trying to save the environment while making a profit.
In the six years since it opened, 19 business have moved into the sprawling four-story building. There’s a brewery and a cheese maker, a custom ice maker, and an indoor farm. And they all have sustainability built into their business models. There’s a bioreactor in the Plant that processes waste and produces spirulina to feed the fish in the fish farm. The fish waste from the hydroponics farm fertilizes the indoor garden and helps the mushroom farm. Mycelia, a mushroom fungus, is being made into a healthier form of potato chips with less waste. The chaffs from coffee beans discarded by the coffee shop are made into bio-briquettes, an alternative to burning wood for the stove for the pizza joint, Pleasant House bakery.
“(Chaff), which is the outside of … the coffee bean when you roast it, is kind of like the paper shell on a peanut inside,” says Eric Weber, the technology coordinator at Plant Chicago. “So it’s coffee chaff and then spent brewery grain. You mix it together. You compress it into a briquette, dry it, and then you can burn it.”
And while it may seem like a lot of work, this kind of idea, and the research it took to create, are at the core of The Plant. Many of Plant Chicago’s research initiatives are built around the idea of lowering environmental and financial costs and reducing waste as much as possible, which is where the coffee bio-briquettes come in. They replace much of the cost, both financial and environmental, associated with the transportation and price of wood.
“When you can, you can reuse the product as an input for another system,” Weber says.
The founder of Bubbly Dynamics, John Edel, always wanted The Plant to incorporate research like this. Now, many students and professors pass through the doors, conducting their own research or continuing someone else’s.
An algae lab, one of The Plant’s more recent additions, is trying to change the way food is made. The project hopes this form of microalgae can become a natural alternative for blue food dye, as well as using chlorella as an organic vegan ingredient and egg substitute.
Even the lights used to nourish the indoor garden are an experiment. According to Weber, purple light has been primarily used to sustain plants, since it has been found that plants are most responsive to this “peak” color of red and blue. But in the basement of The Plant, the lights range from purple to red to yellow. The Plant is now observing how a full spectrum of colored lights can help specific plants grow, such as kale and other types of lettuce.
The Three Rs: Repurpose, Recycle, Research
Weslynne Ashton has been at The Plant since the beginning. An associate professor of environmental management and sustainability at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), she met with Edel just as the project was getting started. Ashton was interested in the research potential of the project.
“Once the nonprofit came into existence, it really provided more of a platform for conducting research and education with some of the area universities,” Ashton says.
The sustainability management program at the Stuart School of Business at IIT is a combination of business law and environmental science. According to Ashton, the rationale behind the program was rooted in the idea that people working on sustainability issues will most likely be collaborating with businesses and firms. In order for businesses to grow, they must work together as an ecosystem and become more sustainable.
Which means Plant Chicago is Ashton’s perfect experiment. She studies industrial ecology, which consists of industrial symbiosis and collaborative environmental management. The end goal is to have “companies sit together like an ecosystem,” says Ashton. The Plant is exactly that.
So much so that one of Ashton’s courses involves looking at the material and energy that goes back and forth between the businesses in The Plant. Students create a material flow analysis and waste audits for businesses, which can help businesses confirm how much they actually are helping the environment while pointing out areas they could improve.
“Saying it is one thing. Having the data and research to back it up puts it in a whole different perspective and enables you to really verify and tell your story more authentically,” Ashton says.
The research helps different areas of Plant Chicago, such as figuring out how to greater influence the community by sharing their circular practices and identifying the different types of capital that add value to systems—not just monetary value, but the value of social relationships and knowledge sharing.
“So it’s often the case that one company might have a particular problem,” Ashton says. “And, because of the wealth of expertise amongst the other companies or at Plant Chicago, and it’s highly likely that they can think through a solution and collaboration by discussing the problem with other companies.”
Repurposing things is The Plant’s specialty, especially when it comes to energy within the building. In 2016, one of Ashton’s students was conducting waste audits on all of the businesses and found that while solid material was being repurposed or recycled, water was slipping down the drain. The student’s findings helped Plant Chicago identify ways to reuse water throughout the building. Now, “greywater,” water that’s relatively clean, mainly from sources like sinks, showers, and washing machines, is scrubbed in a pond garden using algae and reused throughout the building.
Lead by Example
Of course, The Plant itself is the biggest thing that’s been repurposed, which was Edel’s goal. Like much of the waste in The Plant, he wanted to show the world that there’s value in what we’ve discarded.
“We lead by example by demonstrating that we can behave responsibly and make money doing it. That we can take cast aside neighborhoods, cast aside buildings and people and find the value — the embodied energy in the building, for instance, and within the waste stream we exist in, which is all around us,” Edel says.
Where meats used to be smoked is now a set of bathrooms. Where carcasses were hung will soon be a museum depicting the industrial past of the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Where carcasses were washed with salt water is now home to an indoor garden.
According to Edel, the U.S. is way behind other developed countries when it comes to sustainability. The Plant is able to act as a model for other businesses who want to turn to the green side.
“The model is to use what you have, not what you wish you had,” Edel says.