by J.R. Plate
Looking up at the faded paint sign, which reads “Peer Foods,” is an instant reminder of the history that lies within this building. Originally, the building was a meat packing facility that was built in 1925 by the Buehler Brothers, who were second-generation butchers from Germany. Their father, Christian Buehler Sr., immigrated to Philadelphia in 1849 and eventually settled in Chicago to utilize his meat cutting skills in the bourgeoning industry. The Plant property was established to process meat for the Buehler Brothers’ meat markets throughout Chicago. In 1944 the plant changed names from Buehler Brothers to Peer Foods Products. Throughout Peer Foods’ history, it has offered a variety of products in addition to their famous smoked ham, bacon and pastrami.
One business’ ‘trash’ or waste can be another business’ treasure
Entering The Plant, the smoky aroma is an instant reminder of the building’s history. The scent hits the back of your nose and pallet in the same way barbecue does when you enter a restaurant or walk through a neighborhood when people are grilling in the summertime. However, the decades of smoking meats conjures up different images than the aforementioned examples due to the cavernous space that is primarily comprised of concrete and steel. The industrial nature of the meat processing business is evident due to remaining signs that read “Meat Wash,” “Carelessness is Dangerous” and “Brine.” The industrial and sterile nature of the building is quickly changing thanks to the efforts of John and the countless hours being dedicated by volunteers. John’s vision for The Plant has the potential to change the way we look at farming, food production, waste stream management as well as the disconnect our country has with how and where our food comes from. “The goal is that nothing leaves The Plant but food,” explains John during our interview.
On the surface this seems straightforward; on the contrary, what goes into growing, producing and delivery of our food is quite astonishing. There are many components and resources that go into food production for even the simplest of items. Some of these components and resources are water, fertilizer, fuels such as diesel, and warehousing.
Take a tomato for example. When we go to our grocery store we see a nice ripe tomato and we buy it. However, to get that tomato to our store takes an amazing amount of energy and resources.
First, the tomato is probably grown in a place such as California. The farm where this tomato is produced inevitably uses some sort of chemical fertilizer. Non-organic fertilizers use a large amount of petroleum-based chemicals for their production. Additionally, the fertilizer must get to the farm where it is needed, thus resources are expended in transportation. Second, we tend to grow items like tomatoes in semi-arid locales such as California for their abundance of sunshine. Unfortunately, this abundance of sunshine means an absence of water. To properly water these crops, large irrigation systems must be employed. The vast majority of irrigation systems use diesel engines to pump the necessary quantities of water over these large expanses of land. This results in the obvious use of fossil fuels (diesel) as well as water. Next, once the tomatoes are harvested they are generally shipped prior to ripening, as they would end up rotting in transit from California before reaching a store. Therefore, they end up in a warehouse specifically used for grocery stores where produce is stored until it’s ripened to the point of delivery to a store. These warehouses also require a tremendous amount of resources to be built as well as operated and maintained. The final step the tomato takes to our store is on a truck, which uses more fuel along with other resources for operation.
This is a long and exhausting list of steps for us to enjoy something as simple as a ripe tomato. The above model does not take into account other possible negative environmental impacts of farming. Some of these may include contamination of nearby fresh water supplies due to the use of chemical fertilizers or poor air quality from the shipping. Additionally, this example is for fresh produce, not for a processed food such as a baked, cooked or packed goods. These items add another dimension to the waste stream and resource demand needed for us to access food. John’s vision for The Plant looks to eliminate virtually all of these waste streams along with unnecessary resource use. The Plant will mitigate the use of these resources by implementing a “Net Zero Energy Strategy.”
The Plant will effectively use the waste from one business’s processes and utilize it for either energy production across the building or for direct production for another food product. John has chosen a variety of food businesses based on the resources they need for production in relationship to the waste they produce. Ultimately, one business’s “trash” or waste can be another business’s’ “treasure” or resources needed for production. A perfect example of this on a small scale is the aquaponics system that has been implemented by 312 Aquaponics. Aquaponics is a sustainable food growing system that utilizes aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals such as fish) with hydroponics (growing plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. Simply put, the dirty water from the fish tanks is circulated in a closed loop system to the various vegetable and herbs that are being grown. The plants use the fish “waste” which is nutrient rich as fertilizer and then return the dirty water back to the fish tanks clean and free of pollutants. This one example ties into a much more complex system throughout the building. One of the other key components of the The Plant’s net zero system is the implementation of an anaerobic digester.
An anaerobic digester takes organic waste such as food scraps or manure and recovers one or more byproducts such as methane and uses it as fuel. Brewing beer is a fairly energy intensive process and ultimately creates a large waste stream. Thus, New Chicago Brewing has been chosen as one of the businesses for The Plant. Some of their waste stream, including hops, barley and malt, that is left over from the brewing process. All of this waste can be fed into the anaerobic digester and as it biodegrades, it will produce two main byproducts, carbon dioxide and methane.
The carbon dioxide can be captured and used as a nutrient for the indoor vertical farms and the methane can be burned as fuel to create heat. This heat will be utilized for temperature control in greenhouses and general heating of the building. Additionally, the heat from the digester can also be used to cool the building using a process called absorption chilling.