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Environmental Transformation of the U.S. Economy

January 2015
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Thinking Like an Ecosystem
Filed under: Sust. Manufacturing
Posted by: Brian Kuehl @ 7:13 am

By Reid Lifset, Editor, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Associate Director, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

In his famous book on conservation, The Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold urged that we “think like a mountain”.  As the pioneer in wildlife management and the U.S. wilderness system, Leopold was drawn to articulate the connection between people and the land.  In modern technological society, that metaphor must be extended—we need to think like an ecosystem.

The emerging field of industrial ecology seeks to do just that.  Seeing the efficacy with which natural systems cycle resources, industrial ecology explores the “biological metaphor,” asking in what ways can environmental goals be accomplished through lessons drawn from nature.  

The field dates its self conscious beginnings to a 1989 article, “Strategies for Manufacturing” in Scientific American by Frosch and Gallopolous.  The leadership of Frosch, then the head of R&D for General Motors, was soon complemented by workshops and books organized by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and prescient support from the AT&T.  Equally important was the joining of an extensive Northern European community of researchers, managers and activists working on similar concepts under the rubric of cleaner production.

The result is a growing global research community 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 encompasses:

•    material and energy flows studies (”industrial metabolism”)
•    technological change and the environment
•    dematerialization and decarbonization
•    life cycle planning, design and assessment
•    design for the environment
•    extended producer responsibility (”product stewardship”)
•    eco-industrial parks (”industrial symbiosis”)
•    product-oriented environmental policy
•    eco-efficiency.

The field began to take on an institutional identity with the establishment of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, a peer-reviewed international quarterly owned by Yale and published by MIT Press as well as a professional and scientific society, the International Society for Industrial Ecology.

Given this august parentage and the ambitious agenda, the name of the field, “industrial ecology” may seem odd, even oxymoronic. Indeed, the name is intended to be evocative—and provocative—in several ways. The underlying idea is that the entities that have been major sources of environmental damage can be converted into agents for environmental improvement. Industries design and produce goods, and so they possess the tools and technological expertise needed to create environmentally informed products and manufacturing processes. That is what motivates the word “industrial.”

The word “ecology” is intended in at least two senses. First, it refers to the fact that the flow of industrial resources can be compared to the flow of resources in nonhuman, “natural” ecosystems—with the implication that the industrial flows can become just as efficient.

The second reason for the word “ecology” is to place human industrial activity within the context of the larger ecosystems that support it. Traditionally, manufacturing has been regarded as beginning when raw materials enter a factory and ending when the finished product is shipped. But industrial ecology expands that view to include an understanding of the sources of the raw materials, the effects of their extraction, and the fate of products after their useful lives have ended, what is increasingly called the product life cycle perspective.

Much of industrial ecology is motivated by an impulse to approach environmental problems from a systems perspective, so as to avoid gaps and unintended consequences.  This impulse is often manifested in careful, even fierce attention to the quantification of stocks and flows of materials and energy at many scales.  Materials flow analysis (MFA) provides a foundation for examining carefully and comprehensively the biophysical phenomena and human activities that are at the core of environmental problems. This tracking of resources is yet another dimension of the biological metaphor—borrowing approaches from ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry.

The pursuit of a systems approach is embodied the frequent and conspicuous use of a life-cycle perspective, i.e., examining products, materials, services and facilities from “cradle to grave”.  This in turn results in strategies more often associated with European and Japanese environmental policy than in the US: extended producer responsibility (product take-back), design for environment, eco-labeling, green procurement, and environmental supply chain management. On the scientific side, life-cycle assessment (LCA) is the tool that is used to characterize the resource inputs and outputs of pollution and waste across an entire life cycle.

In actual fact, a great deal of the practice of industrial ecology has revolved around environmental assessment—investigating the relative environmental merits of products, technologies, choices of materials and so on.  This has generated a rich, albeit complex, body of knowledge and technique regarding “green” choices.

Mostly recently, industrial ecologists have worked to extend the core concepts in the field.  A growing cadre of researchers now use input-output analysis, a form of economic analysis originally developed by Nobel Laureate Wassily Leontief, to capture, in a more thorough way, the indirect effects of production and consumption choices.  The use of input-output analysis holds out the promise of making LCA and related forms of green assessment more comprehensive and thus more reliable, because it can incorporate resource use and pollution effects throughout the entire economy, rather than just a particular production/supply chain.  These analytical advances are likely to change our understanding of what makes for a green product and lead to some surprises.

In a different vein, one stage of the product life cycle, consumption, is attracting greater attention as policymakers and researchers realize that consumption drives much of the economic activity that in turn produces our environmental challenges.  In some ways, this represents merely an elaboration of long standing approaches in the field; after all consumption is part of the product life cycle.  At the same time, efforts to understand what constitutes sustainable consumption require a larger dose of social science than has traditionally been part of this field.

The study of consumption seeks to go beyond bromides and platitudes above over-, unequal and unfulfilling consumption to meld an understanding the social drivers of what we buy and use with a careful quantitative analysis of the environmental implications of those choices.  For examples of what this has yielded, see the special issues of the Journal of Industrial Ecology on consumption and on priorities for environmental product policy.

Perhaps the most conspicuous success story in industrial ecology to date is an industrial district in Kalundborg, Denmark. The area is home to a cluster of industrial facilities that exchange by-products, or what would otherwise be called wastes—including petrochemical gases, cooling and waste water, steam, and scrubber and fermentation sludge—in a network of cooperative relations that began in 1972 and has grown ever since.  Kalundborg thus became a prime example of “industrial symbiosis.” The term is an explicit analogy to the mutually beneficial relations found in nature.

For several years, Kalundborg was both an icon and a lonely example of one.  Early attempts to replicate the networks of by-product exchanges and resource sharing in the US and elsewhere foundered, but more recently industrial symbiosis has gained traction.  Important examples in Australian minerals industry and a Chinese sugar-paper-alcohol complex have been documented.  

Perhaps more important, China has adopted the notion of the circular economy (循环经济xun huan jing ji) —the term connotes the cycling of resources and closing of materials loops so central to industrial ecology—as a central tenet of its environmental policy.  This strategy encompasses initiatives at many scales from the individual firm to networks of firms to entire cities or provinces.  It includes programs to stimulate the application of industrial symbiosis to the multitude of industrial parks that are the location of much of China’s rapidly growing industries.  Similar efforts to create “eco-industrial parks” in Korea, Taiwan and Thailand are underway.

The organizers of this forum asked me to address the barriers to industrial ecology.  In some cases, they are legal as when some forms of recycling or by-product reuse are made prohibitively expensive by regulation.  More challenging, however, are the social, psychological and political obstacles. Taking a systems view of environmental problems is often daunting and doesn’t lend itself to sound bites.  Many of the changes impose costs on industry or consumers and thus generate political opposition. Equally important, over a decade’s worth of research and debate have made it clear identifying what is “green” product or technology is fraught with both values and technical ambiguities.  “Good science” does not provide a ready or uncomplicated answer to many of these questions.

The elements of industrial ecology are increasingly well known throughout the world.  Most environmental professionals have heard of design for environment, LCA, or eco-industrial parks.  Those concepts have been adopted by related frameworks and promoted under other names.  In that sense industrial ecology, like a species in a dynamic ecosystem (or perhaps a set of self genes to push the metaphor in another direction) has succeeded in spreading its seed widely.

6 Responses to “Thinking Like an Ecosystem”

  1. Kim Says:
    Thanks for this article. I hadn’t heard the phrase industrial ecology before, but see how it ties in with more familiar concepts like DfE and LCA. I was particularly intrigued by the connection to efforts in other countries like China, Korea, and Denmark. I am wondering how countries are currently sharing their expertise and experiences in industrial ecology with each other: Are there specific venues (meetings, journals, etc), or is it more by the flow of people between companies, is government playing any role, etc. Basically I am asking how the flows in this system link up worldwide. Any thoughts?
  2. Reid Lifset Says:
    There are indeed established venues for meeting and publishing in industrial ecology. The International Society for Industrial Ecology (ISIE) has its biennial conference in June in Toronto. There is also the Gordon Research Conference on Industrial Ecology on alternate years (see ). A list of related conferences is maintained by the ISIE.

    The leading journal in the field is the Journal of Industrial Ecology, published by MIT Press and owned by Yale University. If you are interesting in more information on the developments mentioned in Denmark, Australia and China, see

    Ehrenfeld, J. R. and N. Gertler. 1997. Industrial ecology in practice: The evolution of interdependence at Kalundborg. Journal of Industrial Ecology 1(1): 67-79;

    Jacobsen, N. B. 2006. Industrial symbiosis in Kalundborg, Denmark: A quantitative assessment of economic and environmental aspects. Journal of Industrial Ecology 10(1-2): 239-255;

    Encyclopedia of Earth entry on Kalundborg;

    van Beers, D., G. Corder, A. Bossilkov, and R. van Berkel. 2007. Industrial symbiosis in the Australian minerals industry: The cases of Kwinana and Gladstone. Journal of Industrial Ecology 11(1): 55-72.

    Zhu, Q., E. A. Lowe, Y.-a. Wei, and D. Barnes. 2007. Industrial symbiosis in China: A case study of the Guitang Group. Journal of Industrial Ecology 11(1): 31-42.
  3. Georjean Adams Says:
    Comment on a barrier Swarr and Fava in the companion blog, “Life Cycle Assessment: A Tool for Sustainable Manufacturing” mentioned: trust, in particular, trust between companies. To really develop integrated solutions requires economic and personal trust between upstream, downstream and previously unrelated businesses that just haven’t been heard of outside huge firms that are vertically integrated or have enough muscle to dictate terms to their chain. Competitors, suppliers, and customers hide a lot of information from each other in the name of profit and the extraordinary stock market pressure to think short term. How do companies protect legitimate trade secrets, avoid anti-trust and collusion, and still thrive in a the free market? How can they be sustainable from an environmental and business standpoint? We need to get more creative dialog going with other components of the industrial ecology - company lawyers and business managers. Georjean Adams, EHS Strategies, Inc.
  4. Karen Wan Says:
    Thanks for this article. Through the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley and the City of Chicago, a by-product synergy network, called the Waste to Profit Network was launched last fall (October 2006). This network seeks to transform the waste products of companies and other organizations into useful input for other businesses. We are adapting the by-product synergy process developed by the United States Business Council for Sustainable Development (USBCSD) to the Chicago area. The USBCSD model creates a confidential network that allows business to share information that might not normally be shared. The Chicago Waste to Profit Network also has a partnership with the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) in the United Kingdom, that has a very successful network of over 4000 companies. The Chicago model is a hybrid between the two approaches of the USBCSD and NISP, by focusing on different approaches to company engagement. The Chicago Manufacturing Center, which is part of the national Manufacturing Extension Partnership(MEP)manages the project for the City of Chicago, and acts as a connector between small and midsize enterprises and larger companies. We believe this model may have applicability for promoting and implementing the principles of industrial ecology in urban industrial regions across the United States. We’re hoping to create a large scale network in Chicago over the next several years. At this point, we have over 25 companies in our principal network, and plan to add 50 companies to our community network by the end of June. We are evaluating our program with metrics, not only on waste reduction, but also on economic development for our region, including innovation potential for the companies involved in the network. Given the focus of this article, I am curious if anyone is aware of other networks of this sort being developed in the United States. If so, what do the most successful industrial symbiosis or by-product synergy networks have in common? We would like to hear about ideas that have worked in other areas of the country, or outside of the U.S. Karen Wan Director of Sustainability and Competitiveness Chicago Manufacturing Center
  5. Reid Lifset Says:
    Hi Georjean, thanks for your comment: I think that cooperation in the supply chain will occur when consumers demand it, when other stakeholders in society pressure key actors or when businesses see significant strategic cost advantages from doing so. I’m less sanguine about the power of good intentions. When activist groups push high profile retailers or consumer products companies, these businesses in turn make demands on their suppliers. The company lawyers and business managers can be catalytic in this process — finding ways to realize business value from such cooperation, but if consumer demand, strategic imperatives or government mandates (or threats of such mandates) don’t define the larger context, the cooperation will not survive competitive pressures. One of the best discussions of the framework conditions for greening of business is the work by Forest Reinhardt at the Harvard Business School. See his book: Reinhardt, F. L. Down to Earth: Applying Business Principles to Environmental Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000. Or, for the article version, Reinhardt, F. 1999. Market failure and the environmental policies of firms: Economic rationales for “beyond compliance” behavior. Journal of Industrial Ecology 3(1): 9-21. http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/108819899569368 Another account that conveys the complex mix of cooperation and compulsion involved in greening the supply chain is a case study of how Motorola got its supply to adopt eco-design. Rock, M. T., D. P. Angel, and P. L. Lim. 2006. Impact of firm-based environmental standards on subsidiaries and their suppliers: Evidence from motorola-penang. Journal of Industrial Ecology 10(1-2): 257-278. http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/108819806775545484
  6. Reid Lifset Says:
    There are indeed other networks and other examples of industrial symbiosis and by-product synergy. The most prominent is, of course, the network that you mentioned, the National Industrial Symbiosis Program in the UK . There is a network in Canada, the Canadian Eco-Industrial Network and a North American network, The Eco-Industrial Development Council (EIDC). The EIDC is in the process of affiliating with the International Society for Industrial Ecology. For specific examples from around the world, see the special feature on industrial symbiosis in the most recent issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology. (The articles are available for free download.)

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