Green businesses are sprouting at The Plant

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Pies from The Plant’s Pleasant House Bakery, which uses spent grains from Whiner in its breads // Photo courtesy Plant Chicago, NFP

The mission of The Plant extends beyond the inner workings of the building. The goal is to teach others to minimize their carbon footprints and find creative ways to make use of disposable goods. Plant Chicago, an non-profit educational organization located in The Plant, is heavily involved in this effort.

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The Plant // Photo by Carolee Kokola

“How do you keep resources in circulation and out of the landfill?” asks executive director Jonathan Pereira. That’s the question they seek to answer and explain. It’s about more than all the tenants getting everything they need from one another. “It’s more what are their outputs and how can that be repurposed,” Pereira continues. “It’s […] presenting a possibility or designing a project to demonstrate how you could repurpose something else” even if you don’t necessarily need to.

He cites examples from within the building: “We don’t have a need to make bio bricks from coffee chaff or to grow mushrooms, but we can choose to, to demonstrate that’s it’s possible and to measure how much we can get out of the waste stream,” he says. “Our mission is to develop circular economies of food production, energy production, and material reuse.” Public demonstrations and farmers’ market products showcase The Plant’s success thus far.

“We look at pieces of the puzzle differently than a typical business,” says Kokola, referring to The Plant’s emphasis on deconstruction and reuse. “It leans heavier on people power. It takes longer, but it has value. […] Bubbly Dynamics is very much a social enterprise concerned with having viable sustainable operations within and bringing jobs to these disinvested neighborhoods.”

Whiner’s first-floor brewery is huge, the large space necessary for the wild-fermented beers that founder Brian Taylor plans to barrel age. While it’s true the brewery is the one providing for many of The Plant’s businesses, they, too, benefit—by getting ahead of the curve now on creating a brewery that wastes less but produces the same amount.


Whiner’s barrel-aging room // Photo by Ria Neri

“I’ve worked for Flying Dog, Boulevard, and Goose Island, and realize the amount of waste that goes into beer, whether it’s eight barrels of water per barrel of beer, or CO2 or energy emissions, or chemicals and yeast down the drain,” Taylor says. But the industry is changing, and he’d rather change before he’s forced to. “The amount of water we waste in brewing is not going to last. Fifty years from now it will not be eight-to-one.”

Whiner has numerous eco-focused innovations. The aforementioned algae tank is installed now and, in the future, the kettle stack will vent into a humidity- and climate-controlled greenhouse where plants can be grown year-round, capturing yet another brewing waste product. Costs on both ends of the operation are reduced through the efforts (although time and labor efforts are admittedly higher).


Shiitake mushroom block grown by Plant Chicago // Photo courtesy Plant Chicago, NFP

Whiner is also the public face for The Plant. Its soon-to-open taproom may initially draw people to the building to drink beer, but while they’re there, they’ll also learn about sustainability. “People [will] see the brewery and educate themselves on a new subject they didn’t even know existed,” Taylor summarizes.

The end vision of The Plant weaves industrial processes with a conservatory-like feel. But it’s a step-by-step rollout; present occupancy in the building is slightly over 50-percent. The opening of Whiner is a major step forward in filling out the rest of the tenants, as they provide the necessary waste materials to feed other tenants. Once their anaerobic digester is fully operational, The Plant will be able to consider itself a success.

Several Rust Belt cities, and even global entities, have reached out to The Plant about their unique model, but Bubbly Dynamics is waiting to share the plans of their inner workings until they go completely utility-free with the digester. “We see this model being replicable and there’s a lot of interest,” Kokola says.

Emphasizing urban renewable, ecologically positive practices, and efficiency, The Plant isn’t just repurposing a former meat packing facility with 21st century ideals, they’re planting a whole new seed. Whether it becomes a commercial success is still up in the air, but Plant Chicago’s Pereira sees promising signs. “Four of the businesses in the building now are owned by former Plant Chicago volunteers or interns,” he says. It would appear there’s money to be made off others’ waste, and people are starting to take notice.

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