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From Slaughterhouse To Vertical Farm: The Plant Is Innovating In Sustainability And The Circular Economy

In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” depicted the harsh conditions workers toiled under inside the slaughterhouses of the Union Stock Yard and Packingtown. A century later, this area that gave Chicago its brawny identity as “hog butcher for the world” is now home to several new food businesses focusing on sustainability, and The Plant in Back of the Yards is its epicenter.

The Plant, Chicago
The Plant, a vertical farm in Back of the Yards, was once a slaughterhouse.

This 94K SF former slaughterhouse was abandoned and slated for demolition when John Edel — through his company Bubbly Dynamics — bought it in 2010 and slowly repurposed the building into a vertical farm and food production business committed to a "circular economy," a closed loop of recycling and material reuse. Today, the Plant is home to several businesses where the waste stream from one business is repurposed for use by another business elsewhere in the building.

The Plant, Chicago
Whiner Beer Co. brews its beer at The Plant and opened a taproom whose bar, tables and chairs were made from reclaimed wood.

The Plant’s tenants are a who’s who of local food producers. Pleasant House Bakery is a popular company that bakes breads, desserts and Yorkshire-style meat pies that are sold wholesale at farmers markets and at Pleasant House’s Pilsen pub. Arize Kombucha distributes nearly 500 gallons of fermented probiotic tea monthly to area grocery stores. Four Letter Word Coffee, a boutique coffee roaster, has a roastery on the second floor. Whiner Beer Co. specializes in Belgian-style ales and operates a taproom inside the Plant. Justice Ice makes crystal-clear ice for use by Chicago’s best bars and restaurants for their cocktails. The Plant also has an outdoor farm, an indoor aquaponic farm that grows an average of five pounds of greens a week, an indoor tilapia farm and hatchery, a mushroom farm capable of growing 500 pounds of oyster mushrooms a month, and an apiary for making honey.

The Plant, Chicago
The Plant has an outdoor farm and an indoor aquaponics farm on the basement level.

With all of that happening, waste is bound to pile up. And the Plant repurposes over 90% of the waste byproducts created by its tenants. Waste from the fish farm and carbon dioxide from kombucha production is used to fertilize the greens in the aquaponics farm, which in turn filters the water that goes back to the tilapia farm. Spent grain from the brewery is used to feed the fish and for Pleasant House’s baking purposes. The Plant’s tenants even repurpose as many building materials as possible. The bar, tables and seating inside Whiner Beer Co.’s taproom was made from reclaimed wood. Pleasant House uses scrap wood to fire its ovens. Sections of the former slaughterhouse's hanging rooms (where beef and pork were processed assembly line-style and aged) are now bathrooms that comply with the Affordable Care, and other sections are being rebuilt into an information center that will open in the fall.

The Plant, Chicago
The Plant is in the process of installing a digestible aerator that will produce methane and fertilizer for The Plant's internal uses and outside uses.

The linchpin in the Plant's circular economic model is a 100-foot-long anaerobic digester. This machine is capable of breaking down biodegradable material without oxygen to create methane gas to power the Plant's electrical generation systems, algae and duckweed to feed the tilapia, produce enough process heat for use by the brewery, coffee roaster and baker, and make fertilizer for the outdoor farms. The digester is capable of producing 2.2 million BTUs of biogas. On a smaller level, the Plant is also experimenting with making biobriquettes, a hockey puck-sized brick of biomass from spent grain and coffee chaff, that can be used as fuel in the bakery's ovens instead of wood.

The Plant's circular economy has the possibility of being adapted on a larger scale. A French food engineer and Brazilian urban engineer spent their internships at the Plant analyzing material flows in order to create methodologies to determine if the Plant's closed loop system can be used for developing more efficient urban ecosystems and sustainable cities.