By Jessica Mordacq and Izzabelle Murillo –
Plant Chicago, a nonprofit housed in a former meat processing warehouse now called The Plant, facilitates a local circular economy involving several niche businesses. This circular economy means waste from one business becomes resources for another. The Plant, located in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, started with three tenants and now houses 25, including Just Ice, a premium-quality ice company, and Pleasant House Bakery, a family-owned bakery specializing in British-inspired meat pies.
“Instead of wasting something, we’re redefining what waste means,” says Stef Funk, education associate for Plant Chicago. The Plant makes it easy for the businesses to share resources as “the tenants within this building cooperate with Plant Chicago to be as circular as possible.” For example, spent grain from the brewery mixed with chaff from the coffee business compresses into briquettes for Pleasant House Bakery to burn in the ovens.
Just Ice, a business that produces crystal clear ice for restaurants and caterers, was unaware of the circular economy of the building when they signed a lease. But President and CEO Rosanna Lloyd couldn’t be more satisfied with the friendly crossover of businesses sharing resources, a building and a shared mission. Lloyd says the tenants of Plant Chicago are incredibly neighborly and that the “circular economy is not just about waste streams, but cross-pollination of industry contacts.” A strong believer in helping her peers, Lloyd says Just Ice profits most when it’s supporting other businesses at The Plant.
Bakers of Pleasant House Bakery, with a walk-in shop on 2119 S. Halsted St. in Chicago, also agree that businesses working with one another is the best way to utilize every resource. “Right now, we contribute mostly through composting our food waste and to-go packaging. We also use products from other businesses in The Plant in some of our menu items occasionally. We also have a small farm plot at The Plant where we grow some vegetables for our menu,” says Chelsea Jackson, co-chef, owner and founder.
Though The Plant’s goal is to be an environmentally sustainable facility, the tenants produce waste like all other businesses. It’s how they repurpose it that matters. Just Ice creates waste in the form of excess water and scrap ice, which is used to chill produce from the vegetable gardens and to fill coolers for Plant Chicago’s weekly farmers’ market. While Pleasant House also has a plethora of waste concerns, they’ve worked to utilize other tenants’ products in their baking and are excited to participate “in more facility-wide efforts,” such as saving electricity and water reclamation.
However, Lloyd says there’s still room for improvement: “We use polyvinyl liners in our tanks and those are not reusable and non-recyclable.” While there was discussion on repurposing them to cover garden beds, the projected excessive processing has left a recycled use of the polyvinyl liners as Just Ice’s next project. Lloyd also has plans to repurpose Just Ice’s waste heat as electricity – just as Jackson has envisioned – which could potentially heat water for all of The Plant.
Jackson adds that working with Plant Chicago has led to an exploration of possibilities, as “at one point, the nonprofit branch of The Plant was designing blocks of fuel made of spent grain from the brewery, which were intended to help fire our wood-burning oven. I believe that’s still in development.”
Lloyd’s favorite aspect of The Plant is how she can help other tenants by giving them her waste and using theirs in return. However, she doesn’t necessarily agree with the term “circular economy,” she says. “It’s not a circle. It’s like a series of loops. A circular economy is [one where] you’re isolating yourself and that’s not something I’ve seen in this building,” Jackson adds. “Overall, we were very attracted to The Plant and its mission when we were looking for space, and it’s exciting to see how the building is evolving.”
Not only is the community of The Plant important to the tenants, but to the Back of the Yards neighborhood surrounding the building. Plant Chicago gives free tours and classes on urban farming systems, such as aquaponics and composting, to Back of the Yards students and works with the community when trying out new projects. The tenants, including Just Ice and Pleasant House, hire local people to work in The Plant. Lloyd adds, “I would say the things that I appreciate about it aren’t necessarily ‘the circular economy’ aspect. They’re more the community aspect, which is not at all a new concept. It’s just a concept people have forgotten about.”
Photo at top: Mosaic in the Pleasant Harvest Bakery at The Plant. Medill photo.