The Four Stomachs of Sustainability

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Eisenmann Biogas System in the gravel backyard of the Plant on November 9th, speakers ranging from Alderman Pat Dowell to Eisenmann President Mark West tried to explain how the System, represented by a circle in the gravel, would work. In the end, it fell to Mark Fick, Senior Loan and Program Officer of the Chicago Community Loan Fund, to express it in layman’s terms: “No, it’s not a health fad or an exercise routine. Yes, it is kind of like a giant stomach.”

Through the conversion of landfill waste to methane-based biogas, Eisenmann’s anaerobic digester will generate enough energy to power The Plant’s long, red-brick main building without requiring any other fossil fuels. For The Plant, a green business incubator and vertical farm, this mode of energy production is meant to ensure that the site becomes sustainable in more than name only.

Over the past several years, The Plant has slowly been converted from a meatpacking facility to an incubator for new ways of producing and selling food. Current tenants include several for-profit businesses that rely on aquaponics, a low-energy, symbiotic food production process in which bacterially detoxified fish waste is used to grow plants in a hydroponic environment. Tilapia, a freshwater fish that can withstand extreme temperatures and grow fast enough to be harvested every ten months, will be raised on-site; its waste will be used to grow a variety of different plants.

Inside the main building, the detritus of meatpacking blends with the newer inhabitants. A room filled with hydroponic planters adjoins a loft littered with plaster, strips of insulation, and inexplicably domestic trash. On the next floor, a stainless steel door is marked by a laminated sign reading: “Ham Freezer. Ham Freezer.” Behind it, nothing but crumbling walls and an unstable, foam-like floor surface. And everywhere there are walls of scorched steel. Through some industrial process or another, they have acquired the texture of blackened tilapia. The industrial past and vertical future are, if not in perfect harmony, more continuous than one might expect.

At the end of his speech, just before Dowell, West, and other luminaries took up their shovels and hard hats, Fick struck another note with some historical resonance: “The Plant is literally and figuratively creating a new sustainable economy in the shell of the old. It is the antithesis of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.” In Back of the Yards, where the air once stank of offal and the Chicago River literally bubbled with the decomposing bodies of swine and steers, the Plant may be gentler than the stockyards, but its constituent parts are sometimes just as harshly utilitarian. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The anaerobic digester, most viscerally described as a giant steel stomach filled with bacteria and landfill waste, is far from conventionally beautiful, but when it’s up and running, it should serve its purpose with less damage to the people and environment in which it is situated. Industrial or postindustrial societies may always need a stomach. This one will hopefully be stronger than its predecessors.