Industrial Ecology: An Environmental Agenda for
By Hardin B. C. Tibbs ? 1992
Managing for the Global Environment--a Complex Challenge Operating on a global scale brings problems at a global level. The environmental issues now facing industry are no longer focused simply on local toxic impacts--although these remain potentially serious. There are now unintended effects on the total global environment, of which global warming and ozone depletion may be only the most visible of a multitude of adverse symptoms.
The emerging environmental challenge requires a technical and management approach capable of addressing problems of global scope. By contrast, the environmental agenda of companies today is frequently driven by a list of individual issues because there is no accepted overall framework to shape comprehensive programs.
Corporate environmental agendas typically list goals such as eliminating the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), promoting recycling, increasing energy efficiency, and minimizing the production of hazardous waste. The question is whether this kind of action list goes far enough in dealing with underlying causes, or whether it is largely treating symptoms. Will it protect business against further "environmental surprises"? In its complexity, the global environmental problem-set somewhat resembles an iceberg--well-publicized environmental problems are the visible one-tenth above the surface. We still know too little about the adaptive capacity of the natural environment as a whole to predict confidently how it will react to continuing industrialization. If the iceberg suddenly rolls over, it could expose problems that the average business is quite unprepared for.
Effective defense against this uncertainty will be based on the recognition of a key principle. The ultimate driver of the global environmental crisis is industrialization, which means significant, systemic industrial change will be unavoidable if society is to eliminate the root causes of environmental damage. The resulting program of business change will have to be based in a far-sighted conceptual framework if it is to ensure the long-term viability of industrialization, and implementation will need to begin soon.
The aim of this paper is to introduce and discuss the concept of industrial ecology as the best available candidate for this needed conceptual
framework. In essence, industrial ecology involves designing industrial infrastructures as if they were a series of interlocking man-made
atural global ecosystem. Industrial ecosystems interfacing with the n
ecology takes the pattern of the natural environment as a model for solving environmental problems, creating a new paradigm for the industrial system in the process. This is "biomimetic" design on the largest scale, and represents a decisive reorientation from conquering nature--which we have effectively already done--to cooperating with it.
The time is right for the adoption of such an approach. Environmental concern is no longer a fringe preoccupation, but now enjoys broad social recognition and popular support. Government environmental legislation is becoming increasingly stringent, and the media frequently act as
environmental proponents in reporting environmental damage. As a result, major companies are beginning to react with what has been called
"corporate environmentalism." And this, in turn, is creating the need for a means of orienting strategy, management, and technology in an emerging world of environmentally-aware business practice.
A Conceptual Model for Systemic Change
The problem of localized environmental impacts has been well understood for many years, and industry and regulatory authorities have evolved procedures for minimizing classic environmental problems such as local emission of toxic pollutants. But the scale of industrial production is now so great that even normally nontoxic emissions, like carbon dioxide, have become a serious threat to the global ecosystem. Seen in its broadest terms, the problem for our industrial system is that it is steadily growing larger in comparison with the natural environment, so that its outputs are reaching levels that are damaging because of their sheer volume, regardless of whether they are traditional pollutants or not. The relative scale of the industrial system is remarkable: the industrial flows of nitrogen and sulfur are equivalent to or greater than the natural flows, and for metals such as lead, cadmium, zinc, arsenic, mercury, nickel, and vanadium, the industrial flows are as much
1as twice the natural flows--and in the case of lead, 18 times greater. The natural environment is a
brilliantly ingenious and adaptive system, but there are undoubtedly limits to its ability to absorb vastly increased flows of even naturally abundant chemicals and remain the friendly place we call home.
The scale of industrial production worldwide seems set for inexorable growth. All countries clearly aim to achieve the levels of material
prosperity enjoyed in the West, and they intend to do it by industrializing. Since their wish represents market growth to western companies, and is directly in line with current democratic and economic rhetoric, it seems politically inevitable. Indeed, leaving aside environmental concerns,
simple equity argues that it is also morally unavoidable. We are witnessing the evolution of a fully industrialized world, with global industrial production, global markets, global telecommunications highways, and global prosperity. This prospect brings the realization
current patterns of industrial production will not be adequate to that
sustain environmentally safe growth on such a scale and are therefore all but obsolete.
The challenge stems from the fact that we are constructing an artificial global system within a preexisting natural one. It is easy to forget that the industrial system as a whole, as it is now structured, depends on a healthy natural global ecosystem for its functioning. While the industrial system was small, we regarded the natural global ecosystem as limitlessly vast. As a result we treated the functioning of the natural system as irrelevant to our industrial operations. But the continuing expansion of the worldwide industrial system will oblige us to reconsider this view.
The solution will be an approach that allows the two systems to coexist without threatening each other抯 viability. Nature is the undisputed
master of complex systems, and in our design of a global industrial system we could learn much from the way the natural global ecosystem functions. In doing so, we could not only improve the efficiency of industry but also find more acceptable ways of interfacing it with nature. Indeed, the most effective way of doing this is probably to model the systemic design of industry on the systemic design of the natural system. This insight is at the heart of the closely related concepts of industrial ecology, industrial ecosystems, industrial metabolism, and industrial symbiosis, all of which have been emerging in recent years. The question facing industry is to understand how this thinking might function in practice, and what implementation would involve.
At the moment, the industrial "system" is less a system than a collection of linear flows--drawing materials and fossil energy from nature, processing them for economic value, and dumping the residue back into nature (see Figure 1). This "extract and dump" pattern is at the root of our current environmental difficulties. The natural environment works very differently. From its early non-cyclic origins, it has evolved into a truly cyclic system, endlessly circulating and transforming materials, and managing to run almost entirely on ambient solar energy. There is no reason why the international economy could not be reframed along these lines as a continuous cyclic flow of materials requiring a significantly lower level of energy input, and a vastly lower level of raw materials input from, and waste output to, the natural environment. Such a "cyclic economy" would not be limited in terms of the economic activity and growth
it could generate, but it would be limited in terms of the input of new materials and energy it required.
There are many characteristic features of the natural global ecosystem that could usefully be emulated by industry:
?In the natural system there is no such thing as "waste" in the sense of something that cannot be absorbed constructively somewhere else in the system. (An example: carbon dioxide exhaled by animals is absorbed by plants as a "feedstock" for photosynthesis.)
?Life-giving nutrients for one species are derived from the death and decay of another. (Bacteria and fungi in soil break down animal and plant wastes for use by growing plants.)
?Concentrated toxins are not stored or transported in bulk at the system level, but are synthesized and used as needed only by the individuals of a species. (Snake venom is produced in glands immediately behind the snake抯 teeth.)
?Materials and energy are continually circulated and transformed in extremely elegant ways. The system runs entirely on ambient solar energy, and over time has actually managed to store energy in the form of fossil fuel. (The cycling of nitrogen from the atmosphere into protein and back again to the atmosphere is accomplished by an intricate chain of bacterial, plant and animal metabolism.)
?The natural system is dynamic and information-driven, and the identity of ecosystem players is defined in process terms. (The metabolic and instinctive activity of species is coded in their DNA and shapes much behavior in ecosystems, which can be viewed as systems for transforming chemicals and energy.)
?The system permits independent activity on the part of each individual of a species, yet cooperatively meshes the activity patterns of all species. Cooperation and competition are interlinked, held in balance. (The behavior of species in ecosystems is modified in an interactively choreographed flow of responses to the availability of food, variations in seasonal climate, the immigration of new species, etc. Competition for food resources is often minimized by "timesharing" or niche adaptation.) The aim of industrial ecology is to interpret and adapt an understanding of the natural system and apply it to the design of the man-made system, in order to achieve a pattern of industrialization that is not only more efficient, but which is intrinsically adjusted to the tolerances and
characteristics of the natural system. The emphasis is on forms of technology that work with natural systems, not against them. An industrial
system of this type will have built-in insurance against environmental surprises, because their underlying causes will have been eliminated at the design stage.
Our industrial system ultimately depends on the natural ecosystem because it is embedded within it. Our challenge now is to engineer industrial infrastructures that are good ecological citizens so that the scale of industrial activity can continue to increase to meet international demand without running into environmental constraints, or, put another way, without resulting in a net negative impact on the quality of life. The Business Context--"Corporate Environmentalism"
The backdrop to industrial ecology is a history of environmental debate spanning two decades or more. Basic environmental awareness was established by the late 1960s, following publication of
2books such as Rachel Carson抯 Silent Spring, and began to attract serious academic attention in the 1970s. The application of computer modelling to environmental issues resulted in the Limits to
34Growth study for the Club of Rome, and the Global 2000 Report to President Carter, which it
inspired in the early 1980s. The essential conclusions of these reports were that unchecked industrial growth would inevitably lead to significant worldwide environmental degradation, and that serious consideration must therefore be given to curtailing industrial growth. This point of view was not without its critics: the most vocal and cogent 5of these was probably Herman Kahn, who, in his book The Resourceful Earth,
coauthored with Julian Simon, refuted the idea that the earth is as fragile environmentally or as limited in resources as the earlier analyses had assumed. The need for some environmental caution was accepted, but it was argued that the level of public concern was already at a level fully adequate to ensure a corrective business response. Indeed, it was argued, any extra governmental action on the environment--in the form of added regulatory burden--ran the risk of weakening the long-term health of the economy and detracting more from future wealth and quality of life than would the postulated environmental deterioration.
Elements from both poles of the argument appear to be converging into a commitment to action. Industry increasingly accepts the environmental imperative, and has many programs in place to repair the environmental mistakes of the past. Environmental regulations have proliferated to become a mature and formidable body of legislation. The prospect of radical energy efficiency through new technologies has demonstrated that further economic growth may indeed be compatible with environmental stability.
At the same time, as is made clear in the recently published book Beyond 6, written by the original Limits to Growth authors, current the Limits
levels of industrial throughput are now seriously eating into the environment抯 ability to replenish natural biological stocks and
neutralize pollution. And there is generally acknowledged evidence of serious systemic environmental damage, which only threatens to get worse. In other words, there actually is an environmental problem, and there is general agreement that something needs to be done about it. The difficulty is that environmental debate so far has been focused on making a case for environmentalism, or arguing against it, and has not provided industry with a clear agenda for positive environmental response.
An effective environmental agenda will be one that industry can align with easily. In contemplating significant change, business needs to be able to find common ground with the program of action being proposed. Business, in keeping with its entrepreneurial roots, is essentially optimistic and forward looking, with a preference for action and a willingness to accept measured risk. It has a bias toward innovation, and a desire for independence and leadership. It also prefers an objective that can be clearly interpreted in management and technical terms, and is compatible with business activity. The ideal agenda should allow progress to be measured, enhance business performance, and be applicable in any industry, permitting alliances and cooperation among corporations and between industries.
Most existing environmental analysis and commentary has not been framed to incorporate these attitudes, but the intent of industrial ecology is to create a common cause between industry and environmentalism. Philosophically, it is based on a set of implicit assertions: ?With appropriate design, industrial activities can be brought into balance with nature, and industrial growth with low environmental impact is possible. As a result, we have the ability to make industrial development sustainable in the long term, but to do so we must actively apply the appropriate policies and technologies.
?Technology itself is simply an expression of fundamental human curiosity and ingenuity. It is no more intrinsically "unnatural" than human beings themselves and would merely be reinvented if we tried to get rid of it. This view affirms both technology and innovation, but introduces the idea that technology can be designed for improved social and environmental yield, since it is shaped by human decisions.
?Today抯 problems are so complex they can only be solved by the creation of future newness--there is no "way back" to a supposedly better earlier
time. For instance, if we chose to stop all use of nuclear power, the simple need to keep existing radioactive waste safe would require that we retain nuclear know-how indefinitely into the future.
The realization that environmental objectives can be compatible with continued technological development and wealth creation is a key element in the continuing evolution of business attitudes toward environmental issues. It comes as companies have been progressively moving from a minimal posture focused on cleaning up past mistakes to a much more active role that seeks to avoid future environmental errors.
business had a hard time taking environmentalism seriously, Initially,
and saw the philosophy underpinning it as passive, regressive, anti-growth, and anti-technology--an attitude that made genuine action on environmental issues almost impossible. In the terminology of strategic planning, the resulting posture was purely reactive. Any environmental action taken was largely in response to the pressure of legislation or public opinion. In its narrowly-defined desire to defend the status quo and to remain profitable, the company of yesterday restricted itself to the minimum effort necessary to ensure compliance and end-of-pipeline cleanup. This posture was intrinsically vulnerable to unanticipated risks and unforeseen costs, and suffered from an inability to acknowledge new business opportunities being created by environmental concern.
The emerging "green corporation," on the other hand, accepts the environmental imperative and willingly assumes the mantle of environmental leadership. It adopts a truly "proactive" strategic posture, favoring voluntary product and process redesign, as well as the avoidance of pollution and waste, and welcoming cooperation and alliances with other organizations. In short, it takes the long-term view and addresses environmental issues by attacking their root causes. This new outlook has been aptly termed "corporate environmentalism," and is founded on the recognition that environmentalism can be compatible with good business and is essential for business survival.
Industrial ecology gives structure and consistency to emerging corporate environmental conviction. As a framework for environmental strategy, industrial ecology is uniquely able to provide the coordinating vision for effective management planning and technical implementation in tomorrow抯 green corporation. It may even evolve into an intellectual platform that will frame public environmental debate. Industrial ecology promises to give industry the power to anticipate risk and opportunity, to provide real environmental leadership, and to engineer lasting solutions to issues of pressing social concern.
Industrial Ecology in Detail
Applied industrial ecology is an integrated management and technical program (see Figure 2). On
the management side, it offers tools for analysis of the interface between industry and the environment, and provides a basis for developing strategic options and policy decisions. The analytical tools go beyond existing Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) methods, to the detailed mapping of existing industrial ecosystems and the patterns of industrial metabolism within industrial processes. These new methods are described in the sections that follow. On the technical side industrial ecology offers specific engineering and operational programs for data gathering, technology deployment and product design. The techniques and technologies of real-time environmental monitoring are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and
be integrated using information technology as a practical tool for will
mapping and managing environmental impacts. Process and product design will reflect industrial ecology thinking from initial design principles to final decommissioning and disassembly.
Over time, the application of these new tools and techniques will lead to conceptual and practical advances in at least six areas (see Figure
1 ?The creation of industrial ecosystems
Industrial ecosystems are a logical extension of life-cycle thinking, moving from assessment to implementation. They involve "closing loops" by recycling, making maximum use of recycled materials in new production, optimizing use of materials and embedded energy, minimizing waste generation, and reevaluating "wastes" as raw material for other processes. They also imply more than simple "one-dimensional" recycling of a single material or product--as with, for example, aluminum beverage can recycling. In effect, they represent "multidimensional" recycling, or the creation of complex "food webs" between companies and industries. A very literal example of this concept is provided by industrial environmental cooperation at the town of Kalundborg, 80 miles west of 7Copenhagen in Denmark. The cooperation involves an electric power
generating plant, an oil refinery, a biotechnology production plant, a plasterboard factory, a sulfuric acid producer, cement producers, local agriculture and horticulture, and district heating in Kalundborg (see Figure 4).
In Kalundborg in the early 1980s, Asnaes, the largest coal-fired electricity generating plant in Denmark, began supplying process steam
to the Statoil refinery and the Novo Nordisk pharmaceutical plant. Around the same time it began supplying surplus heat to a Kalundborg district heating scheme that has permitted the shut-down of 3,500 domestic oil-burning heating systems. Before this, Asnaes had been condensing the steam and releasing it into the local fjord. Fresh water is scarce in Kalundborg and has to be pumped from lake Tissø some seven or eight miles
away, so water conservation is important. Statoil supplies cooling water and purified waste water to Asnaes, which will soon also use purified waste water from Novo Nordisk.
Gyproc, the wallboard producer, had been buying surplus gas from the refinery since the early 1970s, and in 1991 Asnaes began buying all the refinery抯 remaining surplus gas, saving 30,000 tons of coal a year. This initiative was possible because Statoil began removing the excess sulfur in the gas, to make it cleaner-burning. The removed sulfur is sold to Kemira, which runs a sulfuric acid plant in Jutland. Asnaes is also moving to desulfurize its smoke, using a process that yields calcium sulfate as a side product. 80,000 tons of this a year will be sold to Gyproc as "industrial gypsum"--a substitute for the mined gypsum it currently imports. In addition, fly ash from Asnaes is used for cement-making and road-building.
Asnaes also uses its surplus heat for warming its own sea-water fish farm, which produces 200 tons of trout and turbot a year for the French market. Sludge from the fish farm is used as fertilizer by local farmers. Asnaes has more surplus heat available, and there are plans to use it for a 37 acre horticulture operation under glass. 330,000 tons a year of high nutrient-value sludge from the fermentation operations at Novo Nordisk are also being used as a liquid fertilizer by local farms. This type of sludge is normally regarded as waste, but Novo Nordisk is treating it by adding chalk-lime and holding it at 90?C for an hour to neutralize any
It is significant that none of the examples of cooperation at Kalundborg was specifically required by regulation, and that each exchange or trade is negotiated independently. Some were based strictly on price, while others were based on the installation of infrastructure by one party in exchange for a good price offered by the other. In some cases mandated cleanliness levels, such as the requirement for reduced nitrogen in waste water, or the removal of sulfur from flue gas, have permitted or stimulated reuse of wastes, and have certainly contributed to a climate in which such cooperation became feasible. The earliest deals were purely economic, but more recent initiatives have been made for largely environmental reasons and it has been found that these can be made to pay, too. At Kalundborg, the pattern of cooperation is described as "industrial symbiosis," but
it seems more appropriate to consider it as a pioneering industrial ecosystem, since symbiosis usually refers only to cooperation between two organisms. Most of the Kalundborg exchanges are between geographically close participants--in the case of thermal transfer this is clearly
oximity is not important, as infrastructure costs are a factor. But pr
essential: the sulfur and fly ash are supplied to buyers at distant locations.
Perhaps the key to creating industrial ecosystems is to reconceptualize wastes as products. This suggests not only the search for ways to reuse waste, but also the active selection of processes with readily reusable waste. This can start with just a single process or waste. As an example, Du Pont used to dispose of hexamethyleneimine (HMI), a chemical generated during the production of nylon. But when it started looking for alternatives to disposal, it was able to find a very successful market in the pharmaceutical and coatings industries.
The prospect of a large-scale, and ultimately industry-wide industrial ecosystem has been advanced by Robert Frosch and Nicholas Gallopoulos at 8General Motors. They have given examples of industrial ecosystems
involving individual materials, such as iron and steel, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and platinum group metals. Ironically, until the advent of automotive catalytic converters in the mid-1970s, the platinum group metals were part of an extremely efficient industrial ecosystem that recycled 85 percent or more of these metals. The high value of platinum was obviously an important factor in this, but the example does indicate that impressive efficiencies can be obtained in practice. And, in many cases, apart from the savings in material costs, there can also be substantial savings in hazardous waste disposal fees.
2 ?Balancing industrial input and output to natural ecosystem capacity
The thrust of industrial ecology is to avoid industrial stress on the environment. There will nevertheless be many points of contact between industry and the environment, and there may be outputs to the natural environment that are in effect using it as a carrier or transfer medium, or as a cooperative processing component in the industrial ecosystem. Industrial ecology will therefore be concerned with management of the interface between industry and the natural environment. This will require an expansion of knowledge about natural ecosystem dynamics on both a local and a global level, detailed understanding of ecosystem assimilative capacity and recovery times, and real time information about current environmental conditions. It will involve studying ways that industry can safely interface with nature, in terms of location, intensity, and timing,