Defining Industrial Ecology

The very name industrial ecology conveys some of the content of the field. Industrial ecology is industrial in that it focuses on product design and manufacturing processes. It views firms as agents for environmental improvement because they possess the technological expertise that is critical to the successful execution of environmentally informed design of products and processes. Industry, as the portion of society that produces most goods and services, is a focus because it is an important but not exclusive source of environmental damage.

Industrial ecology is ecological in at least two senses. As argued in the seminal publication by Frosch and Gallopoulos (1989) that did much to coalesce this field, industrial ecology looks to non-human 'natural' ecosystems as models for industrial activity.1 This is what some researchers have dubbed the 'biological analogy' (Wernick and Ausubel 1997; Allenby and Cooper 1994). Many biological ecosystems are especially effective at recycling resources and thus are held out as exemplars for efficient cycling of materials and energy in industry. The most conspicuous example of industrial re-use and recycling is an increasingly famous industrial district in Kalundborg, Denmark (Ehrenfeld and Gertler 1997; Chapter 27). The district contains a cluster of industrial facilities including an oil refinery, a power plant, a pharmaceutical fermentation plant and a wallboard factory. These facilities exchange by-products and what would otherwise be called wastes. The network of exchanges has been dubbed 'industrial symbiosis' as an explicit analogy to the mutually beneficial relationships found in nature and labeled as symbiotic by biologists.

Second, industrial ecology places human technological activity - industry in the widest sense - in the context of the larger ecosystems that support it, examining the sources of resources used in society and the sinks that may act to absorb or detoxify wastes. This latter sense of 'ecological' links industrial ecology to questions of carrying capacity and ecological resilience, asking whether, how and to what degree technological society is perturbing or undermining the ecosystems that provide critical services to humanity. Put more simply, economic systems are viewed, not in isolation from their surrounding systems, but in concert with them.

Robert White, the former president of the US National Academy of Engineering, summarized these elements by defining industrial ecology as ... 'the study of the flows of materials and energy in industrial and consumer activities, of the effects of these flows on the environment, and of the influences of economic, political, regulatory, and social factors on the flow, use, and transformation of resources' (White 1994).

This broad description of the content of industrial ecology can be made more concrete by examining core elements or foci in the field:

• the biological analogy,

• the use of systems perspectives,

• the role of technological change,

• dematerialization and eco-efficiency, and

• forward-looking research and practice.

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