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Photo: Plant Chicago

Chicago eco-incubator the Plant dabbles in aquaponics, biofuel and badass algae

The first stop on the Plant tour is the basement. Here, in this windowless room of a former Chicago meat-packing factory, life is teeming.

Under the glow of grow lamps are floating styrofoam beds of kale, rainbow chard, lavender and marjoram, a station growing algae and burbling tanks of tilapia. This is the aquaponics station, Plant Chicago tour guide and outreach coordinator Cristal Alba explains, the first of several eco-developments inside this innovative facility. The fish are feeding the foliage and vice versa, each relying on the waste and growth of the other to survive. It’s a circle that mirrors the businesses and nonprofit inside the Plant itself.  

Located in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, the Plant is a 93,500-square-foot experiment in eco-sustainability. John Edel’s company, Bubbly Dynamics, LLC, purchased the building in 2010 to create a closed-loop, circular economy. Inside the Plant, more than 15 food production businesses—including a coffee roaster, a brewery and Edel’s nonprofit, Plant Chicago—work together to make and grow food, reuse waste and conserve energy. The former factory has become a home for unique businesses, a hotbed for sustainable innovation and a resource for a community that struggles with poverty.

“There’s nothing quite like it,” said Jonathan Pereira, Plant Chicago’s executive director.

Here are five cool things going on inside the Plant’s brick walls:

The Loop

Tour guide Alba likes to compare the Plant to a Tetris puzzle, where each business’s input and output fits together and relies on the other. Take one away, and waste overloads the system. At the center of it all is a giant whiteboard chart filled with companies, used products and needed resources. The whiteboard helps Plant Chicago and the other co-located businesses complete a circle economy. Here, Four Letter Word Coffee posts that it has used burlap sacks or coffee chaff, while another company can claim the materials and reuse them. Waste is reduced and needs are fulfilled—free of cost. Nearly everything at the Plant can be reused, from packaging to waste to the staff, who often work for other companies in exchange for goods.

At the Plant's aquaponics station, tilapia and produce are grown together and feed each other. Deniz Menemenci/Plant Chicago

Eco-sustainable innovation

Plant Chicago also has a research arm, where they work to find innovative ways to reuse resources in the building. One of its recent creations is the bio-briquette. These flaky pellets made out of coffee chaff from Four Letter Word Coffee and spent grain from Whiner Brewery provide the same heat output as wood, and will eventually replace the need for wood inside Pleasant House bakery’s ovens. Other projects include an algae bioreactor that processes waste and produces nutritious spirulina that feeds the fish in the aquaponics area, and a mushroom farm, where researchers concocted a way to grow gourmet mushrooms inside a grocery store freezer rewired to emit heat and humidity.   

Community outreach

While the Plant is a closed-loop system, Plant Chicago ensures that the community benefits too. The nonprofit has partnered with three neighboring schools within walking distance for a series of field trips, where children can learn about eco-sustainability through hands-on activities like water chemistry tests. They also run a summer internship for local high school students who gain valuable work experience and exposure to jobs in a developing industry. Meanwhile, the Plant’s weekly farmers market emphasizes local business and doubles the purchasing value for Illinois Link card (food stamps) holders.

“There is a real danger though that developments come in like this and it doesn’t have a real benefit to the neighborhood,” Pereira said. “So from the nonprofit perspective, we’re very much focused on making sure that there is benefit coming to the neighborhood.”

Urban Farming

Outside the brick building, there are two fields growing grains and greens interrupting an otherwise urban block, along with a small chicken coop and a rooftop with beehives. Waste from the producers in the building is often composted and used as fertilizer for the farm, while many of the plants are grown for and used by businesses inside. The second farm is constructed as a hugelkulture, a raised-bed garden filled with decomposing wood that acts as a fertilizer. The rotten wood helps keep the ground warm, enabling the plants to start growing earlier in the season and ripen later.

The Big Belly

Not far from the farms is a 100-foot long cylindrical tank nicknamed the Big Belly that represents the next major project at the Plant. This tank will be part of what’s called an Anaerobic Digester, and its job will be to to break down over 30-tons of food waste, which will produce both solid and liquid fertilizers. Though the belly is still about $2.4 million from completion, according to Alba, eventually the biogas it produces from the digestion process will power the generator to provide cooling and heating in the building—another loop closing inside the Plant’s ongoing experiment.