Practice What you Preach at The Plant Chicago: Sustainable Closed Loop Indoor Farming

Last week, HEEA (Harris Environment & Energy Association) hopped on the Magic School Bus and took a field trip to The Plant Chicago. It was a Ms. Frizzle adventure diving into the latest implementation of closed loop sustainable farming right in the middle of what used to be the heart of the nation’s goriest stockyards in the middle of Back of the Yards neighborhood, the center of the meatpacking industry. As we drove in, we were reminded that this legacy lives on with the towering fat rendering facility were thousands of pounds of fat are still processed to be used in soap, make-up, and crayons in name your favorite brands.

The building itself previously packed tons of pork and beef a day. Bubbly Dynamics, the development company, brought in the half a million dollar investment needed to undertake the refurbishment of the building.  They refurbished it to bring it up to code and add pizzazz, but remnants of the building’s previous life remained, such as smoke rooms to cure meat which now served as conference rooms and baños.

Circular Economy

Bubbly Dynamics had the extraordinary vision to bring in different businesses that could mutually benefit one another to create a circular economy. Each has a sustainable aspect to it and as a whole they support one another. My favorite company was Just Ice which makes, you guessed it, ice. Meant for the cocktail bars across Chicago, the blocks of ice they produce are a thing of beauty. Especially if you’re interested in the enigmatic process of how to create clear ice. Shipping out ice was a callback to the olden days when shipping it down river from up north was the only way to get it. The other businesses revolve around food and included a bakery, ice cream maker, and coffee roaster. The development company did an excellent job of strategically bringing in businesses who could support one another instead of haphazardly bringing in whomever could pay rent. This is the Circular Economy in action.

Closed Loop Indoor Farming

Closed Loop –

The second part of the grand plan is closed loop indoor farming.  Plant Chicago is the non-profit within The Plant building which helps educate and promote sustainability and close loop, zero waster food production. The main cycle created and exploited is between plants hydroponically growing in water and that water cycling through to fish. The fish create the ammonia which gets turned into nitrogen (with the help of bacteria) that the plants need.  In return, the fish receive clean, oxygenated water. Some of the small businesses in the building are operating this or similar systems in the building to grow food for-profit.


Plant Chicago is a test bed for improving this system. For example, they have experimented with growing fruit fly larvae the fish can eat (didn’t work well, too smelly),  testing different ways to start the seedlings, and testing the Kratsky Method of feeding plants. This expertise and knowledge gained becomes knowledge shared with others looking to implement similar systems through the outreach efforts that the non-profit puts on.

The Future

The Plant is continuing to evolve and ever looking for ways to grow. They still have space to bring in new businesses that fit within their tenant profile. They’re looking into putting in a shared kitchen, another excellent implementation of different stakeholders coming together for their mutual benefit. Their biggest initiative in progress is installing an anaerobic digester. This is a massive piece of metal tubing which allows for bacteria to break down waste in an oxygen-less environment to create biogas for energy and more productive waste. An interesting piece of information we learned was that Chicago’s Jardine Waste Water Treatment Plant has an anaerobic digester, but its output can’t be used for growing food since human waste contains too much chemicals and drugs. This means that besides the biogas produced for energy, it only gets used for landfill. Weird to think about! Gross!


The field trip was an excellent opportunity to supplement our education with something I feel is often lacking at the University of Chicago, implementation of solutions in the real-world. Takeaways in sustainable system implementations include:

  1. Have a bold vision – The Plant Chicago came out of an old building which was completely re-purposed. This took a lot of foresight to make this happen. The ability to envision what could be is an extraordinary ability.
  2. Look for symbiotic benefits – Many times the system as a whole with each part supporting one another can be successful where one would fail if operating alone.
  3. Try it out – Build something and don’t be afraid to fail. A lot can be learned by testing and prototyping. As Ms. Frizzle says, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

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10 Points on Global Warming: The Carbon Drawdown USGBC Panel

Wednesday, May 10th, I went to USGBC Chicago‘s panel discussion in Chicago about climate change, Defining Carbon Drawdown: What it Means for Chicago and the World. The focus was on the book Carbon Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken. The book presents realistic and attainable solutions to climate change. Up for debate was which efforts to focus on in Chicago. The panel included 4 speakers from different environmentally-focused positions in the Chicago area.  Everyone agreed that more needs to be done, but there was considerable debate about what to prioritize.


Jenny Carney was the moderator and she did an excellent job directing the conversation. Jenny is a principal at YR&G working to improve the performance of existing buildings.

Jenny Carney
Jenny Carney –

The panelists were:

Note: I’m using Chatham House Rules and not attributing who the idea came from partly cause I don’t want to mis-attribute and I don’t want to misrepresent what anyone was saying.

10 Key Points

  1. CO2 doesn’t go away

    When this idea was first mentioned, I thought I was missing something because I knew that CO2 is used by plants in photosynthesis. Everyone learns this in elementary school biology. However, the idea is that that there are natural sources and sinks of CO2. These main sinks of the ocean and forest are already part of the natural cycle of CO2. They can’t compensate for additional human produced CO2. This increase in CO2 can effect the equilibrium for hundrends of years having a profound effect on the climate. This is explained by Archer himself in the paper Atmospheric Lifetime of Fossil Fuel Carbon Dioxide the idea is succinctly summarized in the Nature Reports article, Carbon is Forever.

  2. Priority on refrigerants

    Different greenhouse gases have different sized potentials for global warming. The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a measure of how much a gas will cause the earth to warm over a period of 100 years. It takes into account 1. how much heat they absorb and 2. how long the molecule lasts in the atmosphere.  GWP is measured in units of CO2 equivalents (CO2e) since it is based off CO2‘s impact which has a factor of 1. Refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons can have up to 1,000 times more impact on the atmosphere than CO2.

    GWP –
  3. Food as a Focus

    Agriculture is both a contributor and victim of global warming. According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), it makes up one-third of all global greenhouse emmisions. These include sources from agricultural production itself (tilling the soil releases N2O), fertilizer manufacture, supply chains, refrigeration, and indirect deforestation. This means that changes in this sector can have an outsized impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions.

    Agrigulture’s Impact on Global Warming –

    It is of concern for agriculture because it will also feel an outsized impact of the efects of global warming. The same report estimates impacts o f decreased productivity of up to 10%-20% by 2050. This will require adjustments to what kind of crops are planted, how crops are planted, and when crops are planted.

  4. Business Cajoling vs. Laws


    There was some contention about whether it was better to approach the problem through government or business. On the government side is the impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) transportation standards and the Clean Power Plan. The point was made that these will be necessary to reach the 1.5% °C limit to global warming called for by the Paris Agreement. CAFE standards set mpg efficiency minimums for car company’s fleet of vehicles as a whole. The latest was put forth a standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Phase 2 of the standard could save 1.1 billion tons of CO2 and 2 billion barrels of oil. This not only goes a long way to achieving the Paris Accord, but also saves consumers money at the pump. This is under threat from Trump who ordered a review of this proposal. Final decisions might not come until April 2018.On the other side was the argument to pressure businesses by highlighting the business risks. The idea is that if you convince companies that global warming will impact their business not on a long-term timescale, but in the short-run, they will be much more likely to change their behavior. This is being done by the Corporate Climate Alliance. They are lobbying companies to recognize these risks and incorporate them into their decision making. There is the slight problem of “Why me?” Why should any one company make any change when others won’t? This is a game theory issue where everyone needs to commit to action. It is the same issue countries are facing at a global community level.

  5. Rebates not relevant to middle class and below

    The middle class and below are not able to take advantage of the majority of energy efficiency financial savings. There are two main reasons for this.

    1. The first is that most energy efficient products are more expensive. So, even after the savings, these products are more expensive thn the least-cost option. The lower-income consumer will choose the lowest-priced option which is less efficient. This continues to exarcerbate wealth inequality.
    2. The second reason is because the lower-income tend to be renters. In the owner-rentor scenario, there is a disconnect with energy efficiency investing. Why should an owner make the investment when they don’t pay the utility bill? And why should a rentor pay for the investment when they won’t be around long enough to re-coup the investment?
  6. Specific, Measurable, Long-term Solutions

    The solutions that are come up with need to be specific, measurable, and long-term in order to be valueable enough to have an impact. This is true for any endeavor. Being specific ensures that the change is tangible, real, and clear. Measuring ensures that it happens, creates accountability, and gives a metric for its impact. Long-term solutions are non-frivolous and are make a real change.

  7. Funding – Impact Investors

    Investors can have a major impact on how companies behave. One mechanism for this is for corporate boards to put pressure on management to address climate change risks. One recent example of this is Occidental Petroleum’s Board voting to have the company assess risks to climate change against management’s recommendation. “The vote puts the oil-and-gas industry on notice”, said The Nathan Cummings Foundation. Expect to see more boards to raise the issue of climate change impact to companies which will make it harder to deny.

  8. Reach out to high schoolers to do advocacy  (idea from audience member)

    During the Question and Answer period an audience member had the idea to mobilize high schoolers to raise awareneess about global warming. The idea was that they are a large and energetic group that could be put to work. They could be motivated by different incentives including gaining extra-curricular experience to put on their college applications. The speakers agreed this is a good idea, but was already being done as part of programs such as USGBC’s EPIC Challenge. This is a program intiated by USGBC to engage, empower, and educate all the communities across Chicago to make an impact on carbon drawdown.

    EPIC Challenge
    EPIC Challenge –
  9. Chicago to use 100% renewable energy in city buildings by 2025

    The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanual, and the city of Chicago announced that city buildings will be 100% renewable powered by 2025. Other cities have announced similar goals for the entirety of their cities. Only the three cities of Aspen CO, Burlington VA, and Greensburg KA have achieved the status so far. Yet, there are many more who are working towards this goal according to Go 100% Renewable. It’s tough to say exactly what their measure of being 100% renewable means because there will always be times when renewable energy can’t be had.  Oftentimes, carbon offsets can be bought to say you are using renewable energy. It will be interesting to see what the city’s plan all includes because putting solar panels on top of the Shedd Aquarium to get a 50% reduction in energy use is different than getting to 100% on all buildings.

  10. Chicago using LED streetlights influences other municipalities to do the same

    Chicago’s choice to use LEDs in streetlights influences other municipalities to also use LED streetlights. Part of this is other municipalities recognizing the benefits and feasability of doing this after seeing Chicago do it. Another part of this is the buying power a big city has to make LED lights cheaper. Since Comed was picked to buy and install the lights, Comed will then go to other municipalities with better deals on LEDs to stay consistent and buy in bulk.

Final Advice:

The event brings up the two most difficult problems of fighting climate change.

1. We need effective, tangible solutions.

2. We need a shift in mindset that gets public support of solutions.

These are two, very different fronts, but we need people working on both of them. In summary:

  1. Actually do something.
  2. Don’t do it alone.
  3. Tell someone you did it.
  4. Speak language of people.

The Book

Carbon Drawdown Book
Carbon Drawdown Book –

More information about the book is available on the Carbon Drawdown site.