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In 2010, John Edel, founder of Bubbly Dynamics, purchased The Plant, formerly the Peer Foods meatpacking building, and converted it into an incubator for food businesses. It was one of the many abandoned plants and warehouses scattered throughout the city, many considered to be “strip and rips,” which refers to the process of mining the building for valuable materials before it is destroyed. Edel, however, aspired to restore this building to benefit the larger community and the environment.
The Plant fosters fledgling food businesses in a space where manufacturing and indoor growing coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship that is also energy and waste efficient.
“The perception that the building amounted to no more than a pile of junk completely discounted the value of the embodied energy—that is, the value of the energy used to construct the building and to make all the materials used,” says Carolee Kokola, director of enterprise operations at Bubbly Dynamics.
Kokola further explains that the Peer Foods building was a perfect candidate for Edel’s vision in part because of what it already had to offer: sanitary brick floors, floor drains, food-grade surfaces, and floor loads able to handle heavy-duty equipment and machinery.
“At The Plant, we strive to identify inefficiencies and, to the extent possible, close loops of waste, resources, and energy. Bringing food-production jobs to cities where the food is actually being consumed plays a role in revitalizing communities while reducing vehicle-miles for transportation and helping raise awareness of healthy, fresh food.”
It’s a lofty undertaking, but it’s proving a success so far. In addition to taking advantage of a facility already equipped to handle food production, the businesses that now call The Plant home are able to draw from the knowledge and connections Bubbly Dynamics offers, as well as that of each other. They often create collaborations and seek ways to facilitate closed-loop systems together, in which the output—or waste—from one business is used as input in another. It’s a main focus of the Bubbly Dynamics mission, and all businesses involved in their enterprises are encouraged to seek ways to do this when possible. For example, Bubbly blends wood chips with the spent grains from Whiner Beer Co at The Plant to produce compost, which is then used in the indoor microgreen-growing operation for Closed Loop Farms, as well as the other outdoor farms at the facility.
The goal, eventually, is that the building and the businesses within will reuse all waste created so that, in essence, there won’t be any. Part of this process will involve building an anaerobic digester that is designed to alleviate many of the problems that face urban food deserts, such as waste management, transportation costs, energy production and use, and soil conditions. “The technology’s replicability and scalability create a compelling case study of waste efficiencies and energy production by reusing what is conventionally considered ‘waste’ to create several valuable outputs,” Kokola says. “This project has the potential to shape practices and policy in urban areas throughout the country.” Due to a gap in financing, the digester is on hold, but Bubbly continues to seek funding and maintains that they will build and use the digester in the not-so-distant future.
Bubbly also works with Plant Chicago, a small nonprofit at The Plant, to host a monthly farmers’ market on the first Saturday of each month. During market hours, Plant Chicago offers programming, such as workshops and cooking demos in which they use items available at the market, and Bubbly offers tours of the facility.
Bubbly has also collaborated with Chicago historians to open the Packingtown Museum on the second floor of The Plant, which will serve to preserve, protect, and inform the community about the heyday of the meatpacking industry in the Union Stock Yards and surrounding neighborhoods. When complete, the museum will be open to the public on farmers’ market days and will be free of charge.
There is a lot to be learned and taken away from The Plant project, be that information on sustainable living and food practices, health and nutrition, or Chicago history. “We’re hoping that [The Plant] will [help Chicagoans feel] empowered to implement choices that improve their quality of life and the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of their communities,” Kokola says. “There’s no new building, or new piece of furniture, or new article of clothing, that’s more sustainable than one that already exists. And for food purchasing, [it’s important to] buy more carefully sourced and local food […] and then to enjoy every bit of it […] We’re always delighted to see sparks of intellectual curiosity created by The Plant.”