Paper on Industrial Ecology
systems solutions for sustainable development
through industrial ecology
a diversity of
IE is still in a formative
a diversity of definitions
and understandings of scope of application. A consensus is emerging
around certain key themes, however, there are critical areas of
divergence among industrial ecologists. The following discussion is
based upon our content analysis of over twenty-five definitions,
supported by a similar analysis by researchers at University of
-- an emerging consensus?
The majority of discussions of
industrial ecology tend to agree
on the following elements.
- Industrial ecology is a systems
upon methods for analysis and synthesis from systems science.
- This systems approach focuses upon the interaction
industrial systems and the ecological systems (local to global) of
which they are a part.
- IE seeks to redesign industrial
activities to reduce the
ecological impact of human activity to levels natural systems can
- IE is interdisciplinary, linking
the research and
planning of many fields, including ecology, engineering, economics,
business management, and public administration and law, among others.
- IE studies the flows of materials
and energy through
the economy, ranging from those of an industrial or public facility to
the planet. It seeks strategies to increase the efficiency and
reduce the impact of these flows. (This study is often termed
- Industrial ecology seeks transformation
from a linear,
wasteful economy to a closed-loop system of production and
consumption. In such a system industrial, governmental, and consumer
discards would be reused, recycled, and remanufactured at the highest
- IE enables creation of short-term innovations
awareness of their long-term impacts. Similarly, it enables local
decision-making with awareness of broader regional and global
- IE is a means of balancing
environmental protection with
economic and business viability. This balance must be dynamic,
adapting to new knowledge about industry's impacts and nature's
- IE is a major component in "the
sustainability", with the role of designing the transition
path for industrial activities, broadly defined. It offers an
objective (though complex) foundation for coordinating design of
public policy in environmental, technical, and environmental
Industrial Ecology will
with other fields such as
ecological economics and environmental accounting, in creating the
foundation for sustainable development.
While there is a fair degree of
consensus on the elements of
industrial ecology just listed, there is also much divergence as to its
scope and emphasis. In part this is simply a matter of specialization
within the field. But the following differences often go the heart of
how different researchers define IE.
- Timescale: Some industrial
incremental change in existing systems. Others speak of far reaching
transformation of industry and society.
- The ecosystem model: With some,
a very popular theme
is modeling industrial systems upon the principles and dynamics of
ecosystems. However, some ecologists and many engineers question the
usefulness of this approach.
- Materials flows: Some
industrial ecologists focus on
the task of increasing the efficiency and reducing the impacts of
materials flows in industry and society. In some articles the whole
field appears to be little more than this.
- Scope of application: Much
discussion focuses on
change in manufacturing industries, while other practitioners emphasize
that IE is relevant to agricultural, service and financial industries,
as well as the design and management of public policy, infrastructure,
and facility operations. A few extend IE's domain to the realm of
- Key ecological concerns such as
carrying capacity, and restoration are emphasized in the work of
university researchers but are seldom mentioned by more technically
oriented industrial ecologists . (Allenby & Graedel's definition
does emphasize carrying capacity. 1995)
- Some see institutional change as
component of IE. Others discount this, emphasizing the centrality of
technical innovation to IE.
- Materials choices: The shift
synthetic materials to renewable bio-materials is a central concern for
some industrial ecologists. Others focus on improving the environmental
performance of petroleum based and other synthetic materials.
Industrial Ecology is both
field of scientific research and a
framework for design and decision-making in public and private sectors.
These two aspects should be seen as complementary rather than
divergent. They need to be closely inter-related to insure a sound
basis for developing applications and continuing research on the
results of IE-based projects.
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