Focus: Land Resources and Waste
Location: Chicago, Illinois
When describing the industrialized agriculture, Wendell Berry said modern farmers “can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.” He’s referring to how industrial agriculture breaks up the cycles in traditional farming and in nature into throughputs that require inputs and create waste, instead of feeding off of their own byproducts. Attempts to undo this trend and recreate cycles come in many forms, but few are as creative and progressive as The Plant, a former Chicago meatpacking facility whose eco-friendly transformation was spearheaded by Bubbly Dynamics, LLC. The separate businesses housed within The Plant produce and process food and work together to eliminate waste while feeding off of one another’s byproducts. The goal: produce food with zero net impact.
Many separate ventures rent space within The Plant, but all work towards the common vision of a zero net-impact food production facility. The for-profit businesses housed there include a beer brewery, a kombucha brewery, and a commercial kitchen. Bubbly Dynamics also has several projects within the space run by their non-profit affiliate, Plant Chicago. Plant Chicago’s projects primarily involve research and education in their three separate demo farms: an outdoor farm, a mushroom growing operation, and a vertical aquaponic farm. All of these distinct commercial and philanthropic ventures feed one another through recycling and reuse loops. Spent grain from the beer brewery, for example, fertilizes the mushroom farm, and carbon dioxide from kombucha production is pumped into the vertical farm to speed plants’ growth. The keystone in The Plant’s model, however, is an enormous anaerobic digester that produces electricity and heat for the entire building. The digester takes organic waste from the ventures within the building in addition to food waste from throughout Chicago and lets the waste ferment and produce methane, liquid fertilizer, and humus-like solids. The methane in turn powers a turbine generator that powers The Plant, in addition to creating some electricity to sell back to the grid. The 10,000 tons of food waste that the digester takes in annually would otherwise uselessly rot, emitting carbon dioxide, methane, and ambient heat into the atmosphere. The liquid and solids from digestion are used for soil and fertility in the various farms within The Plant.
The Plant is, at heart, a social cause, not just an environmental one. When running at full capacity, a milestone planned for 2016, the enterprises will provide 125 jobs in Chicago’s depressed Back of the Yards neighborhood. This potential for social good has led the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to give The Plant a $1.5 million grant. Moreover, The Plant recognizes that education is key to their mission, as little progress comes from being an isolated example of sustainability. To spread their vision, Plant Chicago offers classes and workshops about urban and vertical farming, aquaponics, use of sustainable materials, and low-waste building repurposing, in addition to offering general tours of the facility. They believe that The Plant’s model can be embraced by any group of businesses, regardless of whether they produce food or manufacture goods. With enough creativity and inspiration, all ventures can close loops to increase productivity and sustainability.
Environmental Impact: Avoided use of fossil fuels (including avoided emission of GHGs and harmful substance), reduction of landfills, sustainable food waste management, and avoided use of agrochemicals and pesticides
Measurement: The Plant
Credits: The Plant
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