Food Waste-to-Energy at The Plant: SUST Major Emily Rhea Reports on Her Fall Sustainability Internship

This guest post is by RU senior Emily Rhea, a SUST major who is interning at The Plant in Chicago.  During the Fall 2015 semester, Emily reports on her work at this sustainable food production powerhouse

Interning at The Plant in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood has been a wonderful hands-on learning experience.  The Plant is the result of visionary John Edel’s plans coming to fruition.  John Edel, the president of Bubbly Dynamics, set out years ago with the mission of using existing buildings that were abandoned and falling into despair and renovating them using the materials within.  The first venture of Bubbly Dynamics was an old paint factory turned into a manufacturing warehouse.

The Plant is the next venture for Bubbly Dynamics, which began in 2007 when the Peer Foods factory was purchased as a strip and rip operation.  The factory had been abandoned since 2003, but was the perfect building for a sustainable food systems enterprise since it was already food grade certified.  The fact that the building had stainless steel smokers and copper piping only added in its value, and the materials have been reused by the various businesses within, providing stainless steel counters, sinks, and doors for virtually no cost.

At The Plant we are all about closed-loop systems and being a small business incubator.  This means that we encourage small businesses to get their start here by keeping costs low, and the “waste” from one food operation gets used to power another or goes into one of our various food waste systems.  For more about the tenants and operations at The Plant, check out their website and join us for public tours at 2:00pm on Saturdays!

Diagram of the closed-loop system model at The Plant (large scale anaerobic digester and commercial kitchen not completed yet. Brewery and coffee roaster and in the works and set to be up and running within the next few months.)

Diagram of the closed-loop system model at The Plant (large scale anaerobic digester and commercial kitchen not completed yet. Brewery and coffee roaster and in the works and set to be up and running within the next few months.)

When I first joined the volunteer team, I began helping at the farmers market selling products made by businesses right here on the premises.  After shadowing a few of the public tours I was able to start leading them myself.  Now, as an official intern, I have taken to more of the technical side of The Plant operations and am involved in monitoring and documenting all of our food waste systems.  The first system I became involved with was the mini-biogas digester.  This is essentially an experimental design of a system that can harvest the methane released during anaerobic digestion of food waste.

Me grinding food waste to “feed” the anaerobic digester.

Me grinding food waste to “feed” the anaerobic digester.

Many hours have been spent grinding food waste to fill the system, which is necessary to begin anaerobic digestion.  Now, after a few adjustments have been made, the system is finally at full capacity.  This has been an experimental process to find a repeatable and dependable way to harness biogas from food waste, and we have learned so much!  New and improved design is to come, along with a write up of our findings.

Other than the biogas digester, we also have a BiobiN, which is essentially a contained compost that can process food waste from both animal products and plant material.  The plant also has a traditional compost and a hugel, which is a form of planting with food waste using wood and woodchips piled in a snaking formation with foliage planted on it.  We are very lucky to have the waste material from the resident mushroom farm (which is straw with mycelium as a bulking agent for our BiobiN and compost), as it does a wonderful job activating and accelerating the decomposition processes!

I have been heavily involved in the food waste systems at The Plant and am now working with a professor at Roosevelt to gather data on the nutrient makeup of these systems. I hope to have a detailed paper on the various systems, their effectiveness, and reliability completed by the end of the year.

Emily Rhea, submitted 13 Nov 2015

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One Response to Food Waste-to-Energy at The Plant: SUST Major Emily Rhea Reports on Her Fall Sustainability Internship

  1. Laura Miller Hill says:

    I loved this post and what a great opportunity for you! The Plant is such a unique place and I look forward to hearing about the results of your data collection.

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