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Industrial Ecology Methods and Tools for Analysis and Design

Industrial Metabolism | Urban Footprint | Input-Output Models | Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA)
Design for Environment (DfE) | Pollution Prevention (P2) | Product Life Extension


“Design” is a resonant word. It suggests the innovation of artistic conception merged with the rigor of engineering design. Some managers speak of designing their organizations. A new breed of local politicians seek to lead us in the design of solutions rather than the solving of problems.The power of this word suggests that design for environment may be seen as a response to a nested set of challenges from individual product development to global policies. This is the realm of design and decision where industrial ecology functions. It can help guide decision-making across all the levels.

Aristocholia californica or Dutchman's Pipe   a California woodland vine

The transition to sustainable societies requires design at the level of:

  • Products
  • Services
  • Processes
  • Materials and energy flows
  • Facilities
  • Business organizations/missions/strategies
  • Nongovernmental Organization and grassroots strategies
  • Intercompany and interstakeholder relations
  • Community and regional planning and infrastructure
  • Societal institutions and policies

Within this broad design context the basic questions become:

    How can we act with creativity and rigor to design effective environmental, technical, economic, and social solutions at all of these levels?

    How can we best evaluate alternative solutions?

    How do we know the right level of design for approaching a particular issue?

    How do we resolve conflicts across levels of design?

    How do we maintain a coherent view of the whole system in order to manage design decisions well at any level?

We describe here some of the industrial ecology methods and tools that seek to begin answering these questions.

Industrial Metabolism (IM)

Industrial metabolism (IM) traces materials and energy flows from initial extraction of resources through industrial and consumer systems to the final disposal of wastes. Robert Ayres first developed this form of analysis in the 1970s and it has become an important foundation of industrial ecology. IM can be usefully applied at many different levels: globally, nationally, regionally, by industry, by company and by site. A few companies have conducted environmental audits based on this method. Regional application gives valuable insight into the sustainability of industry in natural units such as watersheds or atmospheric basins. Mapping sources, processes of transformation, and sinks in a region offers a systemic basis for public and corporate action.

Industrial metabolism analysis highlights the dramatic difference between natural and industrial metabolic processes: in natural systems materials flow in closed loops with near universal recycling. Industrial systems are often very dissipative, leading to materials concentrations too low to provide value but high enough to pollute. IM provides a framework for developing direct measures of community sustainability.

Dissipative use is where materials are degraded, dispersed, and lost in the course of usage. In these terms, an inclusive definition of waste would be: dissipative use of natural resources. Any release to the environment in dissipative form (i.e., too dilute or chemically locked up to be of economic value) is non-sustainable, because it moves material "out of reach" of the industrial cycles that depend on it.

Industrial metabolism studies have tended to focus on flows of materials. The method is also useful in analysis of energy and water flows. 

An industrial metabolism regional study

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) has completed the first phase of an industrial metabolism study of the Rhine Basin, the largest application of IM so far. This basin is probably the most heavily industrialized region in the world.

The study examined sources of pollution and pathways by which pollutants end up in the river for the whole basin. Materials studied include cadmium, lead, zinc, lindane, PCBs, nitrogen and phosphorous.
The results suggest that in the Rhine basin industry has made major progress on reducing emissions. However, there are increasing flows of pollution from "non-point" or diffuse sources, including farms, consumers, runoff from roads and highways, and disposal sites. These findings  are of great value in design of policy, industrial practice, and public education.

A second phase of the IIASA study will continue research on the Rhine and also include Upper Silesia in the Upper Elbe/Oder basin. The focus of this study is the relationship between heavy metal mobilization, acidification, and land use.

for more informatio on industrial metabolism

Urban Footprint

Mathias Wackernagel and William Rees have created an urban planning and industrial metabolism method of great power in conveying the demand upon resources that any geographic unit makes -- See bibliography. footprint.
Dynamic Input-Output Models

Faye Duchin, Director of New York University's Institute of Economic Analysis, has created 'what if' tools upon the foundation of industrial metabolism and structural economics. These dynamic input-output models enable business and policy decision-makers to perceive the broad business, economic, and environmental implications of systemic technical change.

I-O models add environmental resource accounts to economic information about the 100+ industrial sectors found in standard national input-output tables. By incorporating a time dimension Duchin has created a means of analyzing the total impacts of alternative scenarios of industrial change. How would the changes affect the environment, businesses in the target industry, and their major suppliers and customers?

Duchin's work provides "an analytic framework for considering the economic implications of complex webs of technical changes . . . Dynamic input-output models are used to develop a set of possible solutions rather than a single optimal one . . . (making it) possible to experiment with changes in input structures that might reduce water usage in production, for instance, or recover products of economic value . . . A more complex set of results, involving economic and environmental trade-offs, can be evaluated."

Duchin has applied I-O modeling to issues of household consumption, an important first in IE. Most industrial ecologists focus on manufacturing.

Two examples of potential IO applications to transporation

An automobile manufacturer might choose to study the impact on the environment and its own future of possible socio/technological changes such as:

  • Innovations in engine design resulting from much higher standards for emissions and fuel efficiency;
  • Systemic redesign of small vehicles as proposed by Amory Lovins.
  • An increase in U.S. fuel prices to the global average;
  • A dramatic increase in short to mid-distance rail transport and a resulting increase in demand for rolling stock and feeder motor vehicles.

In the IO study the auto manufacturer could build alternative scenarios, such as:

  • Remaining focused on traditional motor vehicle transport through technological innovation needed to meet the regulatory and economic changes.
  • Developing and marketing lines of alternative vehicles (electric and hybrid-electric).
  • Possible diversification into railcar production through acquisition of a current manufacturer and retooling some of the company's auto parts plants.

Researchers would then go through these steps:

1. Create conceptual models to develop the most useful research questions and to guide next steps.

2. Build a database of relevant data in a form the dynamic IO models can use.

    National Accounts with industries selected for the study (if working in a model of the national economy);
    Environmental Accounts reflecting resources and sinks (as well as wastes and emissions) needed to analyze the environmental impact of the technological changes in question;
    The company's financial information, especially capital stocks, investments, etc.;
    Data on capacity utilization and costs, stocks and flows for energy and materials;
    Information on the technologies being evaluated, including projections of technical data for the future.

3. Use existing strategic and technology innovation plans to develop detailed scenarios about alternative future paths;

4. Evaluate each scenario from economic and environmental perspectives using the dynamic input output model.

The final products for the manufacturer would be a set of scenarios with assessment of the impact of each possible course on its own economic interests and its impact on the environment. It would have a rationale to guide policy and public relations work around its decision. The IO modeling tool developed for transportation would continue to be useful for evaluation of new strategies as other environmental, technical, and social changes emerge.

Transportation from another viewpoint

The transportation and economic development ministries of a developing economy might use IO modeling to evaluate alternative scenarios for creation of a transportation infrastructure and industry. Scenarios explored might include:

  • An auto and truck based highway system;
  • A rail-based, intermodal system;
  • Moderation of need for travel through application of information technologies.

Some key elements in the model would include:

  • Vehicle efficiency and fuel use;
  • Emission characteristics and air pollution;
  • Demands on energy and material resources;
  • Economic and environmental implications of new roads, rail lines, telecommunications, and other infrastructure;
  • Congestion and travel times;
  • Choice among material processing technologies and the associated demand for material and energy resources;
  • Labor requirements and the capacity of the educational system;
  • Information system requirements.

Chinese leadership is presently projecting an industrial development strategy based on automobile and truck manufacturing and infrastructure. An I-O study as outlined here could open an effective process for exploring alternative strategies.

See our paper on three levels of design in transportation.   

for more information on I-O modeling

Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method the flows naturally from the questions posed by industrial metabolism. One phase of LCA--Improvement Assessment-- is the context for development of the allied tool, design for environment (DfE). LCA tools focus on quantifying the environmental burdens of a product, process, or activity, looking at the whole cycle from extraction of resources through to recycling or disposal.

A few examples of LCA studies include assessing the relative merits of paper or plastic bags at the checkout stand; comparing the total environmental impacts of electric vs conventional automobiles; and a Proctor & Gamble study of impacts of household cleaning products that led to development of new cold water products. LCA is developing in parallel with industrial ecology. for more information

Design for Environment (DfE)

"In the short term, Design for Environment is the means by which the still vague precepts of industrial ecology can in fact begin to be implemented in the real world today. DfE requires that environmental objectives and constraints be driven into process and product design, and materials and technology choices." (Braden Allenby 1994)

Design for environment (DfE) is a systemic approach to decision support for designers, developed within the industrial ecology framework. DfE teams apply this approach to all potential environmental implications of a product or process being designed--energy and materials used, manufacture and packaging; transportation; consumer use, reuse or recycling; and disposal.

DfE tools enable consideration of these implications at every step of the production process from chemical design, process engineering, procurement practices, and end-product specification to post-use recycling or disposal. DfE also enables designers to consider traditional design issues of cost, quality, manufacturing process, and efficiency as part of the same decision system. for more information

Pollution Prevention (P2)

Pollution prevention (P2) is a well-developed field of environmental management that focuses particularly on the design of industrial processes within plants. This approach has led to development of many strategies, assessment methods and a wide range of "clean technologies" that often improve both environmental and economic performance. Cleaner production is closely parallel to P2, the favored term in Asian Development Bank and UN organizations.

P2 does not generally address the relationships between plants. Nevertheless, its strategies are complementary to industrial ecology strategies for improving performance among sets of plants. At present there are regulatory limits in P2 to the inter-company exchange of waste materials, a primary IE strategy. Design for environment tools could be very useful to pollution prevention teams, providing a systemic means for weighing trade-offs among competing options for change.

Product Life Extension and the Service Economy

(go directly to a full description of these vital concepts and methods )

Walter Stahel's basic message is, lower demand for energy and materials by designing durable and upgradable products with a long-life span. He answers the question, how could manufacturing companies remain profitable? by suggesting they refocus their mission to delivering customer service (selling results, performance, and satisfaction rather than products) and owning the equipment themselves as the means of providing this service.

With product-life extension, designers seek to ensure that products are optimally:

  • Durable and difficult to damage;
  • Modular;
  • Multi-functional;
  • Sub-components are standardized, self-repairing and easy to repair;
  • The whole product is easy to repair or upgrade;
  • Components can be reused in new systems;
  • Units or systems can be easily reconditioned and remanufactured.

The concepts of product-life extension and the service economy go beyond all other IE approaches to closing the loop in industrial/consumer systems. They are an essential complement to the work of industrial metabolism, design for the environment, and other IE methods.

See an  example of possible application of Stahel's thinking in the Gambit scenario.  for more information 

Scenarios | Industrial Ecology | IE Case Histories
An Industrial Ecology Bibliography | IE on the Web
back to industrial ecology

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