Written by Lynn Miller

Ask any community member of The Plant why they believe in building a “closed loop business. Their responses will include these words, “We reimagine waste and abandoned resources as assets.” This mindset starts at with top with John Edel, founder of Bubbly Dynamics and owner of The Plant (insidetheplant.com)–a social enterprise.  

The Plant was designed by Edel in 2010. This facility is located at 1048 W. 47th in the Chicago Industrial Central Manufacturing & Packing Area. When I interviewed John, an Artist turned machine builder, he shared his vision:

“I designed The Plant as a replicable model for efficiencies that close loops of waste and energy. Business owners at The Plant are like-minded. They also share a commitment to lift up each other and the community around them. . . This commitment came through during shut-down. In a matter of days, every owner had their business up and running. Few if any of the 95 employees were furloughed or lost their jobs.”

During an Interview with Director of Enterprise Operations, Carolee Kokola, she emphasized what makes this community unique. The owners collaborate to solve problems and support each other vs. leave people to solve them on their own.

“We are a growing world that is evolving it’s vegan food collective under one roof,” she said.

It’s been 10 years since this facility and community opened. There are now 24 business owners (50% are women-owned), with 95 full-time employees and a waiting list to join this collaborative community.

COVID-19 Created Challenges and Opportunities

Over the weekend of March 13th 2020, The City of Chicago announced a shutdown of all non-essential businesses due to COVID-19. Immediately, owners of companies inside The Plant sprang into action.

Adam Pollock, owner of Closed Loop Farms, shared an idea of shifting their business model to an online Farmers Market. Less than a week after shutdown began, all the business owners at The Plant made their products available online to consumers who want locally-produced food delivered to their doors.

Retail businesses at The Plant also found a way to participate. Whiner Beer Company’s TAP TAP TAP-A-ROOM offer home delivery for flights of sustainably produced beer (see below)

The carbon dioxide system captures CO2 from Whiner Beer Co.’s brewing system and transports it from their brewhouse to agriculture uses in the building, where indoor farms and algae bioreactors use it as an input to their process.

Turtle Stop is a small retail grocery that currently supports the people who work at The Plant. They offer products made and grown at The Plant, everyday grocery, cleaning essentials, gifts, and more.

Now, an area of Chicago formerly known as “The Meat-Packing District” is experiencing both job and economic growth.

Neighborhood Visitors Welcome

The Plant welcomes neighbors from Back of the Yards, to visit The Plant. Their most recent event, Vegan Paradise launched an outdoor market available every Sunday between August 2nd-September 6th. The purpose of Vegan Paradise is to make veganism more accessible in places that don’t typically find it.

The event is made possible through Chicago Vegan Test Kitchen. Though the market is free, pre-registration is required for timed entry in order to manage the number of guests. A limited number of slots will be reserved for Back of the Yards residents.

The Plant’s Partnership with Back of the Yards, Algae Sciences

John Edel had a mission when he purchased this vacant 100,000 sq. ft. pork-processing facility, former location of Peer Foods, in the heart of the food production district.  He wanted to maximized the benefit of the existing infrastructure to recycle the equipment and use it for local food production or recycling waste during the build-out.

Back of the Yards Arch

The Plant’s mission to demonstrate techniques for re-imagining waste as a resource includes a partnership with Back of the Yards Algae Sciences, a sustainable algae-based ingredients company.

Together, Algae Science and Bubbly Dynamics, (owner and operator of The Plant, have established 3 top tier R&D laboratories.

Creating a Replicable Model

Bubbly Dynamics is assembling our findings into a Toolkit of resources, with case studies describing the creative approaches to resource and energy efficiencies that we have explored in our work. Our intent is to share our learnings to encourage implementation of these approaches with projects that are seeking similar goals.