Industrial Ecology Essay

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Industrial ecology is a concept that advocates converting “waste outputs” into “resource inputs” to reduce the economic, social, and environmental costs of waste disposal while simultaneously preventing the need to take more raw materials for use in production. A 1974 paper by Harry Evan in the International Labour Review introduced the term as follows: “The term ‘industrial ecology’ might appropriately be applied to an interdisciplinary systems approach to environmental problems arising from industrial activities, i.e., the production, consumption and disposal of manufactured products and their raw material and energy inputs, as well as from related mining, agricultural, transportation and construction processes.” According to Jouni Korhonen, industrial ecology uses “nature’s model of material recycling, energy cascading and solar energy-based sustainable ecosystem in transforming unsustainable, fossil fuel-based and wasteful industrial systems into more ecosystem-like systems.”

These definitions, and others, are based on the idea that the traditional model of industrial activity is immature and wasteful and should be changed to an integrated industrial ecosystem. This means that they should optimize the consumption of energy and materials, minimize waste generation, and use the effluents of one process as the raw material for another process. For example, while in natural systems the energy and/or matter produced by one species is consumed by another, surplus heat from industrial processes is commonly dissipated in the atmosphere and potentially recyclable products simply disposed of as waste.

This concern has led many leading environmentalists to critique both capitalist and socialist modes of economic production as being expansionist and linear. Pierre Desrochers used empirical analyses of earlier industrial eras and specific industrial activities to demonstrate that the perception of a linear process does not always accord with the historical evidence -many industrial practices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries involved extensive recycling behavior and the use of by-products in a myriad of ways.

Much work on industrial ecology tends toward the normative, analyzing what could be done in particular industrial situations. In policy terms, there has been a focus on implementing industrial ecology through the creation of linkages between firms in a specific geographic area. This latter vision, known as an eco-industrial park (EIP), E. Cohen-Rosenthal defines as a “community of businesses that cooperate with each other and with the local community to efficiently share resources (information, materials, water, energy, infrastructure and natural habitat)… leading to economic gains, gains in environmental quality and equitable enhancement of human resources for the business and local community.”

Industrial ecology involves going into networking activities between firms. Jouni Korhonen labeled these approaches as the “product” (that is, the technical exercise within a corporation) and “geographical” approaches and notes that while these approaches are compatible in some ways, there are also tensions between them. EIPs can vary in form from a Green Industry Park (where individual industries are clean but have no synergies with other sites), to Integrated EIPs (geographic concentration of firms and synergies between facilities), to the Networked Eco-Industrial System (synergies but spread over a metropolitan or larger area). The challenge has been to develop suitable role models of EIPs. One model example often cited is Kalundborg, Denmark, which has developed around a coal-fired power station where a web of waste and energy exchanges has developed between the power plant, the local city administration, a refinery, a fish farm, a pharmaceuticals plant, and a wallboard manufacturer. However, Kalundborg relies upon nonrenewable fossil resources and produces carbon dioxide emissions, neither of which are compatible with the principles of industrial ecology.

The Kalundborg industrial complex emerged over a period of about 30 years and was achieved without consultants designing potential interactions, government financial support to encourage interactions, or a higher level of administration to oversee the interactions. While much of the literature has focused on emulating the design and interactions present at Kalundborg, Pierre Desrochers focuses on the processes of private sector investment and argues that rather than being an example of designed symbiosis, Kalundborg is a contemporary example of industrial symbiosis that has been occurring “long before the advent of modern environmental consciousness and regulation.” While gradual evolution is one characteristic that is identified in nature and transferred to industrial ecosystems, there is nothing in nature to indicate whether this gradual evolution should be facilitated primarily through private planning, design, urban planning, or a combination of economic geography and urban planning/urban governance.


  1. Clint Andrews, “Putting Industrial Ecology into Place: Evolving Roles for Planners,” Journal of the American Planning Association (v.65, 1999);
  2. Cohen-Rosenthal and Judy Musnikow, eds., Eco-Industrial Strategies: Unleashing Synergy between Economic Development and the Environment (Greenleaf Publishing, 2003);
  3. Herman Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (Beacon Press, 1996);
  4. Pierre Desrochers, “Eco-Industrial Parks: The Case for Private Planning,” Independent Review (v.5/3, 2001);
  5. Pierre Desrochers, “Industrial Ecology and the Rediscovery of Inter-Firm Recycling Linkages: Historical Evidence and Policy Implications,” Industrial and Corporate Change (v.11, 2002);
  6. Pierre Desrochers, “Natural Capitalists’ Indictment of Traditional Capitalism: A Reappraisal,” Business Strategy and the Environment (v.11, 2002);
  7. Harry Evan, “Socio-Economic and Labour Aspects of Pollution Control in the Chemical Industries,” International Labour Review (v.110/3, 1974);
  8. Robert Frosch and E. Gallopoulos, “Strategies for Manufacturing,” Scientific American (v.261, 1989);
  9. Thomas Graedel and Braden Allenby, Industrial Ecology (Prentice Hall, 1995);
  10. Jill Grant, “Industrial Ecology: Planning a New Type of Industrial Park,” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research (v.17, 2000);
  11. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce (HarperBusiness, 1993);
  12. Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Little, Brown, 1999);
  13. Jouni Korhonen, “Industrial Ecology in the Strategic Sustainable Development Model: Strategic Applications of Industrial Ecology,” Journal of Cleaner Production (v.12, 2004).

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