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Measuring Food, Energy and Water Flows at The Plant

Article by Eva Chancé, French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA)

(This research was led by Eva in partnership with Plant Chicago and Research Steering Committee members from Illinois Institute of Technology and University of Illinois Chicago)

In this paper entitled “The Plant – an experiment in urban food sustainability” and published recently in the journal Environmental Progress & Sustainable Energy, we present the concept of urban food production and opportunities for sustainability at the nexus of food, energy, and water (FEW) flows. Compared to traditional farming, growing indoors has been shown to be significantly more efficient with water usage and can reduce the amount of organic waste in runoff. However, indoor farming requires large amounts of energy for lighting and climate control, which can in turn exacerbate environmental impacts.

In this project, we studied and measured the performance of The Plant. We utilized a Material Flow Analysis (MFA) framework to gather and analyze the FEW flows, but we also illustrated the social impacts, which are important as part of the broader circular economy framework of the facility. Furthermore, we identified several challenges in assessing the flow of FEW resources in experimental facilities such as The Plant, and we emphasize the need for ongoing study of such systems in order to determine a path towards sustainable management of food, energy, water, and waste in cities. Our findings include:

  1. Wastewater represents a significant opportunity for reduction, reuse and recycling within the facility. An estimated 45,086 gallons of wastewater left the building during the 3-month study period out of a total intake of 87,240 gallons. This means about 48% of the incoming water was incorporated in finished products or represents losses for which we could not account.  See below for water flow diagram, representing all data gathered March-May 2016.

  2. We were not able to achieve a mass-balance for the building, meaning our measured material, water and energy inflows and outflows did not quite match up. This is a constant challenge when conducting MFA’s but especially for a facility with many small business and highly seasonal changes. Uniquely, The Plant is fitted with sensors that measure electricity and water demand for each tenant, meaning inflow measurements were fairly accurate for these two components.

  3. Pleasant House was determined to be the most “symbiotic” of tenants, receiving four different byproducts from other tenants, and sending one of its byproducts (ash) for reuse.


Although the bibliography and technical work was done by me and largely helped by Julia Noberto (UIC student), this publication is in the end a collective effort. As every project and achievement hosted by Plant Chicago and The Plant tenants, the results are always people gathering to promote best practices and the strength of uniting force for a better future. Professor Weslynne Ashton  (IIT) has been the link with the journal in the submitting process but also spent an monstrous amount of time writing, rewriting and editing my clumsy English attempt. She also continues this amazing data collection work by organizing projects at The Plant with her students in 2017 and for the years to come. Professors Stéphane Guilbert and Sybil Derrible have both been my mentors while in Montpellier (France) and in Chicago to go though all the steps of building a protocol and writing my masters thesis and this paper. Jonathan Pereira and John Mulrow are part of the Plant Chicago team and were a great help while I was working at The Plant and during the writing process.

This paper is the very proof that blending skills, years of experience and various personalities is the best way to achieve meaningful work. My hope is that it will cross countries, continents and be used to build new projects and go even further to change our current system to build a better future for our cities.

Past updates on this project are posted here and here.


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