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By Leah Dunlevy-

Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood is drawing in an influx of green businesses through Plant Chicago. The local nonprofit enterprise has created an environmentally sustainable business model with company partners that recycle wastes from one operation as resources for another in a vintage warehouse, itself recycled into The Plant.

Plant Chicago and a warren of small companies operate out of this shuttered meat-packing and processing facility now called The Plant. Beginning with three tenants a few years ago, The Plant now houses 25 diverse local businesses that include a bakery, brewery, and a coffee producer. The businesses work within a closed loop where “the waste from one business is reimagined into another product,” according to Stef Funk, education associate of Plant Chicago.

A museum under development at The Plant brings back the days of the Union Stockyards and neighborhood history. (Leah Dunlevy/Medill)

Spent grain from Whiner Brewery, the business with the most waste, mixes with coffee chaff and a little sawdust to make briquettes for the bakery ovens. The spent grain also feeds the chickens penned in a yard on The Plant’s grounds. All of the businesses housed within The Plant use innovative ideas for repurposing waste to keep their projects environmentally sustainable and collaborative. Plant Chicago facilitates the effort and demonstrates that this closed loop-model could be implemented on a larger scale.

Plant Chicago’s work extends beyond the borders of The Plant. The nonprofit works with the local community, providing free gardening and crafts classes, education services to schools and opportunities for employment. It is involved with local organizations such as the Peace and Education Coalition High School and organizations such as the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council.

The Plant has also taken steps to preserve the historic importance of the neighborhood. Back of the Yards, a meatpacking hub sprawled around the Union Stockyards from the late 1800s until the 1960s, at one time slaughtered and processed approximately 80 percent of America’s meat.

The neighborhood quickly became infamous for its high levels of pollution, disease and crippling accidents in the workplace. Upton Sinclair documented many of the horrors of the Back of the Yards in his book, The Jungle. Following the decline of the Chicago’s meatpacking industry after the 1960s, cheap real estate became abundant. John Edel, founder of Bubbly Dynamics, capitalized on the inexpensive real estate and purchased the meat processing facility that became The Plant. Bubbly itself is a nod to the neighborhood, the name commemorating methane bubbling up from stockyard carcasses dumped in nearby Bubbly Creek.

Peer Foods owned and operated the warehouse until 2010  when the vacant building was purchased by the company Bubbly Dynamics. The company initially bought the building as a demolition project but recycled it instead. Since then, Bubbly Dynamics has become “obsessed with the history of the stockyards and [tries] to keep it alive in the architecture of the building and through the museum” under development at The Plant, according to Kassandra Hinrichsen, education and outreach manager of Plant Chicago.

Choosing to use the existing infrastructure, many of the building’s unique historic elements remain intact. The bathrooms are installed in old smokehouses and the ceiling of the building’s history museum contains the original rotating ceiling rail from which carcasses hung during the meatpacking process. The museum preserves the important history of the building within the larger context of the meat-packing district through vintage photographs, blueprints, posters and historic artifacts.

“I imagine that a large part of their vision is to maintain what the neighborhood is,” Funk said. “I hope that we don’t lose that moving forward.”

Photo at top: The 100,000-square-foot building narrowly escaped destruction. The previous owners had seen no potential in it, expecting that greater benefit would come from destroying it and salvaging metals for construction purposes. Meanwhile, Bubbly Dynamics developer Jon Edel, who owns the building, saw that it would be way more expensive to tear this building down and build a new one than it would be to refurbish what is already here,” said Funk, as she explained The Plant’s history. (Photo and caption: Leah Dunlevy/Medill)

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