Environmental and social life cycle assessment of growing media for urban rooftop farming

Susana Toboso-Chavero, Cristina Madrid-López, Gara Villalba, Xavier Gabarrell Durany, Arne B. Hückstädt, Matthias Finkbeiner, Annekatrin Lehmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


New environmental strategies are emerging for cities to become more self-sufficient, such as hydroponic crop production. The implementation of such systems requires materials that usually originate in countries with low labour costs and other legal regulations. To what extent could these strategies be shifting problems across the globe? To answer this question, we performed a comprehensive environmental and social assessment of the various extended soilless systems used to grow vegetables on urban roofs.

Three different growing media constituents were chosen for this study: perlite, peat and coir; which are produced in three countries, Turkey, Germany and the Philippines, respectively, and are imported to Spain. By using a life cycle assessment, we evaluated the environmental performances of the production and transport of these growing media. Additionally, we performed a social life cycle assessment at different levels. First, we used the Social Hotspots Database to analyse the constituents in aggregated sectors. Second, we performed a social assessment at the country and sector levels, and finally, we evaluated primary company data for the social assessment of the constituents through questionnaires given to businesses.

Results and discussion
The coir-based growing medium exerted the lowest environmental burden in 5 out of 8 impact categories because it is a by-product from coconut trees. In contrast, perlite obtained the highest environmental impacts, with impacts 44 to 99.9% higher than those of peat and coir, except in the land use. Perlite is a material extracted from open-pit mines that requires high energy consumption and a long road trip. Regarding the social assessment, peat demonstrated the best performance on all the social assessment levels. In contrast, coir showed the worst scores in the Social Hotspots Database and for the impact categories of community infrastructure and human rights, whereas perlite displayed the lowest performance in health and safety. Nevertheless, coir and perlite evidenced much better scores than peat in the impact subcategory of the contribution to economic development.

This study contributes to a first comparison of three imported growing media constituents for urban rooftop farming from environmental and social perspectives to choose the most suitable option. Peat appears to be the best alternative from a social perspective. However, from an environmental standpoint, peat represents a growing medium whose availability is aiming to disappear in Germany to preserve peatlands. Therefore, we identify a new market niche for the development of local growing media for future rooftop farming in cities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2085
Number of pages2102
JournalThe International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Publication statusPublished - 18 Oct 2021


  • Life cycle assessment · Soilless systems · Open-air farming · Rooftop greenhouses · Green cities · Urban agriculture


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