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New level of sustainable food blooms at The Plant

The Plant 1400 West 46th street Chicago is an old packing plant converted state art  hydroponic farm  fish

The Plant at 1400 West 46th street in Chicago is an old packing plant converted to a state of the art hydroponic farm, fish farm, brewery, baking center, and will use zero energy when it is finished. Director John Edel inspects herbs being grown in hydroponics on the lower level on Tuesday, January 8, 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: February 17, 2013 6:04AM

Models of gleaming glass skyscrapers with plants spilling over the sides. Solar panels. Wind turbines. Organic cotton T-shirts.

These are the images of the future of sustainability that fill the media; glamorous, modern and sleek. But the most exciting sustainable food project in Chicago couldn’t be more different. Hiding in an abandoned former meatpacking warehouse on the South Side, The Plant might just change the way we think about food production in cities. And instead of windmills and solar panels, they are doing it with beer, kombucha, fish and greens.

“This is real, gritty, urban sustainability in action,” said John Edel, founder and executive director of The Plant, 1400 W. 46th. It’s an incubator for indoor farms, breweries, bakeries and other food businesses, but it’s a little different from your average factory. Every business in the building uses the waste products from another business in the building, creating a closed-cycle that maximizes efficiency, eliminates waste and, Edel hopes, will provide a model for others.

Illinois Institute of Technology Professor Blake Davis, one of the participants in the project (and our tour guide) explained further: “The difference between us and a regular factory is that in a regular factory, some trucks pull up and they drop off some raw materials. In the factory, those are made into a hot dog or a refrigerator or something. Everything that’s left over is waste; it goes into a Dumpster and it goes into the landfill. Obviously, that’s not what happens with nature.”

For example, a brewery on the first floor will be making craft beer. Once the brewing is done, brewers are left with tons of spent, useless grain. Useless to them, that is — the aquaculture facility one floor down can feed it to their fish and a mushroom grower next door could grow mushrooms in it. Those same fish (tilapia) in the aquaculture tanks in the basement produce their own waste, which helps to grow greens and vegetables. Nothing is lost and nothing is wasted. “Our motto is that the only thing that leaves The Plant is food,” said Davis.

The heart of the facility, the thing that completes the cycle, is a state-of-the-art Anaerobic Digester imported from Germany. Well, it’s the metaphorical heart; the digester is actually outside the building. An Anaerobic Digester is a machine for turning waste organic material into power. Not through incineration, as that’s fairly inefficient. Instead, the digester uses bacteria to break down the waste and produce methane, which is then burned.

The burning methane turns a turbine to produce electricity. At full operating capacity, the plant will actually produce more power than the building needs, which they can sell back to ComEd. The digester will also produce waste heat; conveniently, heat that the brewers need to boil their giant kettles. Even better? The tiny amount left at the end of the process is so rich in nutrients that it can be used as fertilizer. So all of the scraps from the farms and businesses inside The Plant can be turned into electricity, heat and more fertilizer.

Why use a system like this instead of solar or wind, the more typical forms of environmentally friendly power? Edel dismissed solar power out of hand. “No matter how good your panels are, they are still only 20 percent efficient. You might as well have a greenhouse.” They briefly considered wind, but it wouldn’t be enough to power the site.

“That’s why we landed very quickly on anaerobic digestion. In any American city, there is so much waste around us every day that goes into landfills. There is no shortage of fuel for the taking.” In fact, The Plant will be using waste materials from some of their neighbors — a win/win situation, as the neighbors won’t have to pay for waste removal and The Plant gets free power.

The building itself was built in 1925 as a meatpacking plant, close to the old stockyards. The meat packer abandoned the building in 2007, and it sat vacant for a few years. It only cost around $500,000 when The Plant acquired it. “You can buy a house in Chicago for that much, or, if you’re kind of nuts, you can buy a meat packing plant,” Edel laughed. The facility is perfect for The Plant because it’s filled with what Edel calls “embodied energy.” “It was put there in those materials 100 years ago, and it’s all still there.” Millions of man-hours of energy and tons of materials went into building the warehouse. Rather than tearing it down and starting over, the team at The Plant is using as much of that energy as possible.

The building itself turns out to be perfect for indoor agriculture. Just about anything can be stacked on the thick concrete floors (including full fish tanks) and they won’t buckle, and it’s very well insulated. In addition, the building already has built-in drains, important if you’re raising fish and plants.

As they renovate the building, each scrap removed is converted into something useful. The former owners left equipment, electronics and other useful materials, all of which are being reused. Sheet metal from old smokers is being made into food-safe kitchen counters, old industrial tools are being rehabbed and used again. During the renovation of the 93,000 square foot facility, they’ve only carted away four Dumpsters of rubble. “That’s a good-sized kitchen rehab for most other people,” said Davis.

The Plant isn’t some collective utopia; it’s a non-profit that aims to host profitable businesses. Part of that is attracting tenants: food businesses that find the facilities and the desirable amenities of cheap power and heat perfect for their model. One of these is SkyyGreens, an aquaponics startup (and Chicago’s first licensed indoor farm) that is already producing food at The Plant. Galen Williams, the CEO of SkyyGreens, explained why indoor farming was a viable business. “We’re down the street from buyers. This isn’t coming from California, it’s not coming from South America. We can harvest things the day they are served or the night before. It’s perfect for the customer; it’s fresher, it lasts longer and it tastes a lot better.”

The Plant also hosts several bakeries, including a production facility for the popular Pleasanthouse Bakery, located close by in Bridgeport. Peerless Bread & Jam occupies another bakery space. Thrive Kombucha brews on the first floor. In the basement, huge plastic tanks of fish swim alongside giant floating containers of plants: herbs, lettuce, arugula, vegetables and other greens. When complete, the facility will create 125 jobs.

Eventually, when the building is fully renovated, they plan to build a shared kitchen facility so that small startup food businesses can have a place to grow. They may raise bees or chickens someday. In addition, they plan to incorporate conference space, a visitor’s center and a cafe, as well as many more spaces for sustainable businesses. With 45,000 square feet of food production space, there’s a lot of room to expand.

John Edel hopes that others will be inspired by The Plant’s success. “Chicago is kind of known for tearing things down. There are a lot of warehouse spaces that can be adapted instead. You can get them for pennies on the dollar because nobody wants those buildings.”

Perhaps in 20 years, plants will be sprouting out of the windows of other abandoned industrial buildings in Chicago.

Anthony Todd is a local freelance writer.

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