Practising industrial ecology

Creating industrial ecosystems
Designing for industrial metabolism
The design of whole systems of processes, industries, products or combinations of these that interact with each other and the natural environment as if they were a natural (sustainable) ecosystem. Creating industrial ecosystems is done using the tools and methods of design for the environment, pollution prevention and total quality environmental management.

Industrial ecology uses principles of biology, ecology and systems thinking to maximize business performance and profits by all measures - economic, social and environmental. It adapts nature's principles to business, boosting innovation and promoting long-term sustainability. Principles derived from nature include diversity, specialization, complexity. These can be applied to specific business situations in order to create adaptability and resilience. Positive feedback loops and creative-destruction/ renewal cycles are other natural system process which provide models for corporate efficiency and productivity.

The concept of industrial metabolism was originally developed in the 1980s in the broader context of industrial ecology. As shaped by Robert Ayres, the idea of industrial metabolism is based on an analogy between the biosphere and the industrial economy, both considered as systems for the transformation of materials. It covers production and consumption, energy and the process itself of economic development. The main elements of industrial metabolism are the inputs and the outputs of the system. They account for the mass flows for key industrial materials of environmental significance and for the waste emissions associated with them and finally for the necessary actions to carry on a proper recycling.

Industrial ecology is a rapidly growing field that systematically examines local, regional and global materials and energy uses and flows in products, processes, industrial sectors and economies. It focuses on the potential role of industry in reducing environmental burdens throughout the product life cycle from the extraction of raw materials, to the production of goods, to the use of those goods and to the management of the resulting wastes. Industrial ecology is ecological in that it: (1) places human activity -industry in the very broadest sense -- in the larger context of the biophysical environment from which we obtain resources and into which we place our wastes, and (2) looks to the natural world for models of highly efficient use of resources, energy and by-products. By selectively applying these models, the environmental performance of industry can be improved.

In Kalundburg, Denmark, a celebrated industrial ecosystem has evolved comprised of five core partners: a power station, refinery, plasterboard plant, biotechnical plants and municipal water and heating system. Over the last two decades these partners have exchanged a number of materials, with the benefit to the environment being reduced emission (130,000 tonnes CO2, 3,700 tonnes SO2) and waste residues (135 tonnes fly ash, 2,800 tonnes sulphur, 80,000 tonnes gypsum, 800 tonnes nitrogen). This web of reuse and recycling grew as a result of close proximity, managers working together, mutually beneficial needs and a recognition that what benefits the environment also is commercially sound and profitable.
If someone were to present the Industrial Revolution as a retroactive design assignment, it might sound like this: Design a system of production that (1) puts billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year; (2) measures prosperity by activity, not legacy; (3) requires thousands of complex regulations to keep people and natural systems from being poisoned too quickly; (4) produces materials so dangerous that they will require constant vigilance from future generations; (5) results in gigantic amounts of waste; (6) puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved; (7) erodes the diversity of biological species and cultural practices.

The Next Industrial Revolution can be framed as the following assignment: Design an industrial system for the next century that: (1) introduces no hazardous materials into the air, water, or soil; (2) measures prosperity by how much natural capital we can accrue in productive ways; (3) measures productivity by how many people are gainfully and meaningfully employed; (4) measures progress by how many buildings have no smokestacks or dangerous effluents; (5) does not require regulations whose purpose is to stop us from killing ourselves too quickly; (6) produces nothing that will require future generations to maintain vigilance; (7) celebrates the abundance of biological and cultural diversity and solar income. (Revolution by William McDonough and Michael Braungart).

Type Classification:
G: Very Specific strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 15: Life on Land