Achieving Sustainable Development Through Industrial Ecology


Achieving Sustainable Development Through Industrial Ecology



During the last ten years, concepts such as sustainable development, industrial ecology and environmental management have been more frequently used by industry, the world of academia, the media, public administration and the NGOs. The amount of such “buzzwords” indicates that there is an increased focus on environmental issues.

Sustainable development means integrating social, economic and environmental objectives  of the society in order to maximize the well being of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs. Recognition is now widespread that industrial activity plays an essential role in a sustainable society. The rapidly-growing new field of industrial ecology (IE) offers methods that can assist corporations and organizations in sustainable operations and serving as agents of change. Industrial ecologists have even referred to their field as “the science of sustainability”. In brief, industrial ecology might be defined as the study of interactions between industries and their environment. IE studies technological and managerial approaches for reconfiguring industrial activities to conserve natural resources and reduce pollution.


Sustainable development is the environmental catchphrase of the 1990s, and the most universally quoted definition is that produced in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), otherwise known as the Brundtland Commission: “Economic and social development that meets the needs of the current generation without undermining the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Following the publication of the Brundtland report, there was a rapid escalation of alternative definitions of sustainable development and lists are given by several authors (e.g. Pezzey 1989, Pearce et al. 1990, and Rees 1989).

“Rather than focusing on economic growth in isolation, sustainable development requires the integration of the social, economic and environmental dimensions in corporate and public decision-making, within a governance framework that ensures full participation and accountability” (IIED 1999)

It is now widely agreed that there are three pillars to sustainable development:

• Economy (Profit): The creation of wealth and livelihoods;

• Society (People): The elimination of poverty and improvement of quality of life;

• Environment (Planet): The enhancement of natural resources for future generations.

Traditionally, societies have attempted to set social, economic and environmental goals, but often in isolation from one another and never focusing on sustainable development. Decision-makers are now becoming aware that environmental goals can only be achieved by integrating them into mainstream social and economic policy-making. Thus, sustainable development will entail integration of these three objectives where possible, and making hard choices and negotiating trade-offs between objectives where integration is not possible. Businesses and government are the two most influential institutions in the effort to attain Sustainable Development. Of the many incentives businesses have to improve their environmental performance, the most compelling is profits. Industrial Ecology helps businesses to view their activities from a new perspective, one that allows an organization to see the financial and strategic benefits of the market’s environmental dimensions.


The concept of I ecology builds on the biological concept of ecology, which is “the branch of biology dealing with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.” Rather than examining an individual organism, ecology looks at the systems within which organisms live and of which they are a part.  Individual organisms consume resources and leave wastes behind.  When viewed on a large enough scale in space and time, however, organisms tend to live within natural ecosystems where resources are not depleted and wastes do not accumulate because there are cyclical processes in place that make use of all “wastes” as resource inputs for other organisms.

Industrial ecology seeks to move our industrial and economic systems toward a similar relationship with Earth’s natural systems.  Earth’s resources are not infinite, so the pattern of industrial development that we have followed over the past two centuries, or so, cannot continue indefinitely, especially in the face of the rapid expansion of population and economic activity that the world has seen in the past fifty years.  IE seeks to discover how industrial processes can become part of an essentially closed cycle of resource use and reuse in concert with the natural environmental systems in which we live. To do this, IE looks beyond individual industrial processes to examine the interactions of industrial activities with the environment through a systems perspective.

3.1 Defining Industrial Ecology

There is still no single definition of IE that is generally accepted. However, most definitions comprise similar attributes with different emphases. One of the publications most often referred to defines industrial ecology as follows:

“Industrial ecology is the means by which humanity can deliberately and rationally approach and maintain a desirable carrying capacity, given continued economic, cultural and technological evolution. The concept requires that an industrial system be viewed not in isolation from its surrounding systems, but in concert with them. It is a systems view in which one seeks to optimize the total materials cycle from virgin material, to finished material, to component, to product, to obsolete product, and to ultimate disposal. Factors to be optimized include resources, energy, and capital.” (Graedel and Allenby, 1995, p. 9)These attributes include the following:

• A systems view of the interactions between industrial and ecological systems

• The study of material and energy flows and transformations

• A multidisciplinary approach

• An orientation toward the future

• A change from linear (open) processes to cyclical (closed) processes, so the waste from   one industry is used as an input for another

• An effort to reduce the industrial systems’ environmental impacts on ecological systems

• An emphasis on harmoniously integrating industrial activity into ecological systems


There are certain key elements around which the concept of IE revolve. They have been discussed below.

4.1 Systems and lifecycle approach

A systems approach is a measure for examining the issues raised by IE. First, it means analyzing the entire defined system as an entity, including results and consequences. It is not the value of each individual that creates the total value in an ecosystem, rather it is the interaction going on in nature which creates the value (Kushi 1997). In an IE perspective, it is thus necessary to improve the meshing of various actors to attain an optimum result. Central to the systems approach is the inherent recognition of the interrelationship between the industrial and natural systems. Second, a systems approach means that the needs and interests of the actors in the system must be considered. The transition from end-of-pipe solutions to preventive approaches is an example of this. In this way we avoid focusing on (problem) symptoms, rather focusing on the problem core, the cause, and it’s driving forces.

4.2 Materials and Energy flows and transformation

A primary concept of IE is the study of material and energy flows and their transformation into products, byproducts, and wastes throughout industrial systems.

One strategy of IE is to lessen the amount of waste material and waste energy that is produced impacting ecological systems adversely. Recycling efforts could be intensified or other uses found for the scrap to decrease this waste. Efforts to utilize waste as a material input or energy source for some other entity within the industrial system can potentially improve the overall efficiency of the industrial system and reduce negative environmental impacts. Industrial ecology seeks to transform industrial activities into a more closed system by decreasing the dissipation or dispersal of materials from anthropogenic sources, in the form of pollutants or wastes, into natural systems. In the automobile example, it is useful to further trace what happens to these materials at the end of the products’ lives in order to mitigate possible adverse environmental impacts.

4.3Analogies to the natural systems

There are several useful analogies between industrial and natural ecosystems. (Allenby, 1992) The natural system has evolved over many millions of years from a linear (open) system to a cyclical (closed) system in which there is a dynamic equilibrium between organisms, plants, and the various biological, physical, and chemical processes in nature. Virtually nothing leaves the system, because wastes are used as substrates for other organisms. This natural system is characterized by high degrees of integration and interconnectedness.

Industrial ecology draws the analogy between industrial and natural systems and suggests that a goal is to stimulate the evolution of the industrial system so that it shares the same characteristics as described above concerning natural systems. The evolution of the industrial system from a linear system, where resources are consumed and damaging wastes are dissipated into the environment, to a more closed system, like that of ecological systems, is a central concept to industrial ecology.

A goal of industrial ecology would be to reach this dynamic equilibrium and high degree of interconnectedness and integration that exists in nature. There is a well-known eco-industrial park in Kalundborg, Denmark. It represents an attempt to model an industrial park after an ecological system.The companies in the park are highly integrated and utilize the waste products from one firm as an energy or raw material source for another.

4.4 Interdisciplinary approaches

Since industrial ecology is based on a holistic, systems view; it needs input and participation from many different disciplines. Furthermore, the complexity of most environmental problems requires expertise from a variety of fields — law, economics, business, public health, natural resources, ecology, engineering — to contribute to the development of industrial ecology and the resolution of environmental problems caused by industry. Along with the design and implementation of appropriate technologies, changes in public policy and law, as well as in individual behavior, will be necessary in order to rectify environmental impacts.

Industrial ecology means changing from considering environmental issues as merely local, company-specific, industrial and technological problems caused by industry itself and where solutions largely are end-of-pipe based. This requires interdisciplinary expertise. This is supported by Ehrenfeld (1995) who claims that the designing of sustainable social institutions and framing conditions is just as important as designing new products and processes.


What this strategy potentially offers is an organizing umbrella that can relate these individual activities to the industrial system as a whole. These strategies represent approaches that individual firms can take to reduce the environmental impacts of their activities.  The goal of IE is to reduce the overall, collective environmental impacts caused by the totality of elements within the industrial system and to achieve sustainable development.

5.1 Pollution prevention: This is defined by the U.S. EPA as “the use of materials, processes, or practices that reduce or eliminate the creation of pollutants at the source.” Pollution prevention refers to specific actions by individual firms, rather than the collective activities of the industrial system (or the collective reduction of environmental impacts) as a whole (Freeman et al, 1992). In recent years, Pollution Prevention has slowly been gaining prominence among large and small corporations such as GMI in Dovel, Delaware; ICI Surfactants of New Castle, Delaware; Corning, Inc.; and Dow Chemical. Each of these companies has found that Pollution Prevention is a win-win concept — both for their business and for the environment. For the business Pollution Prevention is a means of reducing costs, increasing productivity and reducing waste. For the environment, a lower effluent discharge equates to a “greener” planet.

5.2 Waste minimization: This is defined by the U.S. EPA as “the reduction, to the extent feasible, of hazardous waste that is generated or subsequently treated, sorted, orientation disposed of.” (Freeman et al, 1992)

5.3 Source reduction: any practice that reduces the amount of any hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant entering any waste stream or otherwise released into the environmental prior to recycling, treatment or disposal (Freeman et al, 1992)

5.4 Total quality environmental management (TQEM) is used to monitor, control, and improve a firm’s environmental performance within individual firms. Based on well established principles from Total Quality Management, TQEM integrates environmental considerations into all aspects of a firm’s decision-making, processes, operations, and products. All employees are responsible for implementing TQEM principles. It is a holistic approach, albeit at level of the individual firm. Many additional terms address strategies for sustainable development.

5.5 Cleaner production: Cleaner production a term coined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1989 is widely used in Europe. UNEP defines Cleaner Production as the continuous application of an integrated preventive environmental strategy applied to processes, products, and services to increase overall efficiency and reduce risks to humans and the environment.

Production processes: conserving raw materials and energy, eliminating toxic raw materials, and reducing the quantity and toxicity of all emissions and wastes.
Products: reducing negative impacts along the life cycle of a product, from raw materials extraction to ultimate disposal.
Services: incorporating environmental concerns into designing and delivering services (Leo, 1998)

This definition of CP incorporates both a broad goal and a wide variety of approaches, but is largely rooted in the examination of existing processes, products, and services with a view to reducing risks to humans and the environment.  Similarly, in addressing eco-efficiency CP generally starts with cost-effective environmental improvements from the perspective of the individual factory or industrial enterprise (Sybren & Crul, 1997).

5.6 Eco towns/ Eco industrial parks: The Eco-Town Project refers to those projects needed to build a resource circulating society “targeting finally for no-waste (zero-emission) through reutilizing the wastes of one industry as the raw materials of another industry”. The concept of eco-towns and eco-industrial parks has taken hold in Japan and China. The City of Kitakyushu has established the “Kitakyushu Eco-Town Plan”. Kawasaki Eco-Town has been conceived as the plan for the Kawasaki Coastal Industrial Area. This concept envisions that the industrial firms that will be located in the Kawasaki Coastal Industrial Area will minimize their operations’ impact on the environment and will jointly take the lead to achieve the common goal of creating a sustainable society in which industrial activities will be conducted in harmony with the environment. More specifically, Kawasaki Eco-Town is being planned as a community.

The most advanced concept is being developed by the Ebara Corporation around the Fujisawa Factory in Japan. This project involves industrial, commercial, educational, recreational and agricultural linkages with the goal of creating as close to a cyclical economic and ecological system as possible. Melbourne, a home to 3.4 m people is set to become the first industrial city an eco town by 2020 through comprehensive energy reduction and absorption of local emissions.

5.7 Green Chemistry: The term green chemistry is defined as the invention, design and application of chemical products and processes to reduce or to eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.  Development of new materials and energy sources to replace non-renewable and polluting substances is itself a part of chemistry and materials science. However, industrial ecology plays a role in evaluating the broader systems implications of proposed solutions like bio-fuels or genetically engineered organisms like industrial enzymes. Green chemistry, in contrast, does not rely on equipment, human activity, or circumstances of use but, instead, changes the intrinsic hazard properties of the chemical products and transformations. Consequently, green chemistry is not as vulnerable to failure, as are the traditional approaches to hazard control. The areas for the development of green chemistry have been identified as use of alternative feedstocks, use of innocuous reagents, employing natural processes, use of alternative solvents etc.,


This paper has highlighted the latest environmental concepts of sustainable development and industrial ecology and the role of industrial ecology as a potential umbrella for sustainable development. However as this is an emerging field much R&D needs to be done.


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Dr. Vijila Kennedy


RVS Institute of Management Studies & Research, Coimbatore

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