Small businesses in Chicago have transformed an old meatpacking plant into a successful sustainable food experiment.

Small businesses in Chicago have transformed an old meatpacking plant into a successful sustainable food experiment.

The Plant in Chicago: A Sustainable Food Production Playground

The Plant

Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood is home to a giant, red-brick building, occupying an entire city block. Once the epicenter of the nation’s meatpacking industry, the area was notorious for its tight livestock pens, slaughterhouses, and environmental degradation. However, this massive 100,000-square-foot structure has been transformed into a hub for sustainable food production called The Plant.

The history of The Plant dates back to its origins as a meatpacking plant, but today it houses a diverse array of businesses. From a brewery and a coffee roaster to farms and laboratories, the building is bustling with activity. What sets The Plant apart is its commitment to creating a “closed loop” system. By leveraging waste heat, wastewater, byproducts, and excess resources, the businesses within the building strive to minimize waste and maximize efficiency.

A Playground for Innovation

Through a decade of tinkering and experimentation, The Plant has become a haven for small businesses aiming to produce food sustainably. Rather than inventing new technology, The Plant connects existing technologies in creative and innovative ways. The entire building is a living experiment, showcasing the potential of sustainable food production.

But The Plant offers more than just an experimental space. It provides an affordable and supportive environment for small businesses to grow and learn from each other. With 105 full-time jobs, The Plant fosters a community of like-minded individuals pushing the boundaries of technology and job creation.

From Meatpacking to Indoor Farms

Originally designed for large-scale food production, The Plant’s facilities have seamlessly transitioned into supporting indoor farming. With USDA-grade floors, waterproofed walls and ceilings, and robust structures, the building is uniquely equipped for food production. These features, initially essential for processing pig carcasses, now support various indoor farming initiatives.

Four farms operate within The Plant, both indoors and outdoors. Closed Loop Farms, for example, cultivates microgreens in a large basement room. Imperfect or used-up plants find new life as compost for the outdoor farms. The Plant’s facilities provide an ideal environment for startup farming businesses, offering affordable, food-grade spaces that facilitate growth and collaboration.

A Closed Loop of Food Production

The Plant’s central philosophy revolves around creating a closed-loop system where the waste from one business becomes a resource for another. The businesses within The Plant have strung together a brewery, a bakery, small farms, and more to achieve this vision. Whiner Beer Co., the brewery at The Plant, plays a crucial role in this closed-loop system. It not only produces beer but also contributes to heating the building during winter. Spent grain becomes compost for the farms, and carbon dioxide emitted during fermentation feeds growing algae in the laboratories upstairs.

The interconnectedness of the businesses within The Plant extends beyond the brewery. For instance, coffee bean chaff is repurposed to enrich soil for the farms, and the bakery uses spent beer grain to grow mushrooms and bake bread. This resource-sharing model demonstrates the extent to which waste can be minimized and efficiency maximized within a closed-loop system.

Tackling the White Whale: Anaerobic Digestion

While The Plant has achieved significant strides in sustainable food production, one elusive goal remains: turning food waste into a profitable venture. The Plant envisioned an anaerobic digester that would convert 32 tons of food waste daily into liquid digestate, compost-like solids, and biogas. The biogas would power boilers, the solids would enrich soil, and valuable molecules would be extracted from the liquid for farming purposes.

However, the costs associated with the anaerobic digester have proven higher than anticipated, making it financially impractical at the moment. Nevertheless, researchers at The Plant are determined to find a way to make the digester profitable. Back of the Yards Algae Sciences, one of the businesses within The Plant, is exploring the extraction of valuable molecules from the digester’s waste. If successful, this breakthrough could pave the way for a revived digester and further enhance The Plant’s closed-loop system.

The Ultimate Circular Vision

The ultimate aim of The Plant is to create a circular food production system. By connecting the waste from vertical farming or food waste to an anaerobic digester, the building could generate energy, such as biogas or electricity, while producing a digestate that feeds algae. The algae, in turn, would produce biostimulants for boosting plant growth. Meanwhile, valuable molecules and food colorants could be extracted from the algae and the digester.

This circular vision embodies The Plant’s commitment to eliminating waste and creating a symbiotic relationship between all aspects of food production. Every resource, every byproduct, and every waste material finds purpose within this closed-loop ecosystem.

In conclusion, The Plant in Chicago stands as a testament to the possibilities of sustainable food production. Through innovation, collaboration, and a commitment to minimizing waste, the businesses within The Plant have transformed a former meatpacking plant into a beacon of environmentally conscious practices. By pushing the boundaries of technology and job creation, The Plant offers an inspiring model for the future of sustainable food production.