Reducing Risk versus Optimizing Resource

Industrial ecology emphasizes the optimization of resource flows where other approaches to environmental science, management and policy sometimes stress the role of risk. For example, pollution prevention (P2) (also known as cleaner production or CP) emphasizes the reduction of risks, primarily, but not exclusively, from toxic substances at the facility or firm level (Allen 1996). Underlying this focus is an argument that only when the use of such substances is eliminated or dramatically reduced can the risks to humans and ecosystems be reliably reduced. In contrast, industrial ecology takes a systems view that typically draws the boundary for analysis more broadly - around groups of firms, regions, sectors and so on - and asks how resource use might be optimized, where resource use includes both materials and energy (as inputs) and ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles that provide crucial services to humanity (Ayres 1992a). In concrete terms, this means industrial ecology will sometimes look to recycling where P2 will emphasize prevention (Oldenburg and Geiser 1997). The differences between industrial ecology and P2 are not irreconcilable either conceptually or practically (van Berkel et al. 1997). In conceptual terms, P2 can be seen as a firm-level approach that falls under the broader rubric of industrial ecology (as shown in Figure 1.2). In concrete terms, the difference in actual practices by operating entities may not be great, although careful empirical work documenting how these two frameworks have differed in shaping decision making has not been conducted. However, some interesting analysis has been conducted of the risks posed by the recycling of hazardous materials, asking whether it is indeed possible to recycle such substances in an environmentally acceptable manner (Socolow and Thomas 1997; Karlsson 1999).

This is not the only way in which industrial ecology differs from allied fields in its orientation towards risk. The focus of industrial ecology on the flows of anthropogenic materials and energy is not often carried further than the point of release of pollutants into the environment. In contrast, much of traditional environmental science focuses precisely on the stages that follow such release - assessing the transport, fate and impact on human and non-human receptors. Similarly, risk assessment and environmental economics focus on the damages to humans and ecosystems, only sometimes looking upstream to the source of pollutants and the human activities that generate them. In this respect, industrial ecology can be seen as providing a complementary emphasis to these fields by concentrating on detailed and nuanced characterization of the sources of pollution. In a related vein, research in industrial ecology often examines perturbations to natural systems, especially biogeochemical cycles, arising from anthropogenic activities. The impacts of such perturbations can be construed in terms of risks to human health and economic well-being as well as to ecosystems, but the analysis of perturbations differs from the manner in which risk assessment - typically focused on threats to human health - is often conducted. This is not to suggest that industrial ecology ignores questions of risk, fate and transport or environmental endpoints. The intense work on methodologies for life cycle impact assessment (Udo de Haes 1996) is but one example of the field's efforts to systematically incorporate questions of environmental impact. Further, there is work in the field that integrates fate and transport into such analyses (Potting et al. 1998; Scheringer et al. 1999).

Another aspect of the focus on flows and releases rather than damages and endpoints is that the threats posed by releases - especially of persistent pollutants - endure and the receptors can change in a manner that later causes harms that may not be captured in a typical risk assessment. For example, cadmium deposition to agricultural soils that takes place as a result of naturally occurring cadmium contamination of phosphate fertilizers may not cause significant human health or ecological damage as long as fields are limed and thereby kept alkaline. If the fields are taken out of production, liming is likely to end. Soil pH will thereby increase, and cadmium may become biologically available and environmentally damaging (Stigliani and Anderberg 1994; Chapter 40).

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