Industrial ecology is an interdisciplinary framework for designing and operating industrial systems as living systems interdependent with natural systems. It seeks to balance environmental and economic performance within emerging understanding of local and global ecological constraints. Some of its developers have called it "the science of sustainability".
IE supports coordination of design over the life cycle of products and processes. It enables creation of short-term innovations with awareness of their long-term impacts. It helps design local solutions that contribute to global solutions.
Industrial ecology helps companies become more competitive by improving their environmental performance and strategic planning. IE helps communities develop and maintain a sound industrial base and infrastructure without sacrificing the quality of their environments. And it helps government agencies design policies and regulations that improve environmental protection while building business competitiveness.
Industrial ecology principles and methods can be used by service as well as manufacturing companies. Application of IE will improve the planning and performance of government operations, including local, regional, and national levels of infrastructure. While much of the initial work in IE has focused on manufacturing, a full definition of industrial systems includes service, agricultural, manufacturing, military, public operations, such as infrastructure for landfills, water and sewage systems, and transportation systems.
Indigo Development's Definition
Industrial Ecology is a dynamic systems-based framework that enables management of human activity on a sustainable basis by:
The Industrial Ecology approach involves (1) application of systems science to industrial systems, (2) defining the system boundary to incorporate the natural world, and (3) seeking to optimize that system. In this context, "Industrial systems “applies not just to private sector manufacturing and service but also to government operations, including provision of infrastructure.
In an emerging field of study and practice it is natural that understanding of its scope and meaning should be varied. We have completed a content analysis on a large number of these definitions and offer a view of where there appears to be consensus and divergence in defining IE.
We are in an era of exponential change in world systems; availability of resources for development, destruction of natural capital, release of an increasing variety of toxic materials, climate change, and the impacts of all of these forces on human and natural systems. For instance, plastics from ocean dumping of garbage are disintegrating to a molecular level and entering into food chains. The ocean waters in northern seas are becoming less saline due to ice melting as the result of a warming atmosphere. Decision-makers and citizens need guidance from a systems-based interdisciplinary framework to deal with the complex interactions among such complex systems. The crunch.
China's top leadership has instituted a potentially far-reaching transformation of the economy to a more closed-loop system, with industrial ecology and cleaner production methods as the foundation for the strategy of transformation. The proposed goal is a ten-fold increase in productivity and efficiency of production. This is likely to become the most strategically significant application of industrial ecology, given China huge population and consumption of global resourdes. See our overview of this initiative.
An ideal IE project is modeling the system changes required to achieve a transition to sustainable food and fiber production. This involves major issues of sustainability with universal human application, issues that unfortunately are not now high in priority on most public agendas. Meeting the challenges involved in this transition will require interdisciplinary coordination among many technical, economic, social, political, and ecological research disciplines. With hundreds of billions of dollars going into one technical solution, genetic engineering of plants and animals, the stakes are high.
Industrial ecology may be able to help us perceive the whole system required to feed the planet, preserve and restore its farm lands, preserve ecosystems and biodiversity, and still provide water and land for a growing population. Indigo has created a development concept for agro-eco-industrial parks as a way of supporting the evolution of sustainable farming. See our pages on Sustainable Agriculture.
Indigo Development is collaborating with the Beijing-based Environmental Education Media Project Center and the International Center for Sustainable Development in conceiving an agro-eco-industrial park to support sustainable farming in China. AEIP project summary
Industrial ecology methods enable setting policy and design across dimensions of time and space. What are the best short-term improvements? How do we achieve the transition to fully sustainable systems over a city or a region? Transportaiton systems provide a useful demonstration of applying IE at three levels of design.
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. Can we devote a significantly larger proportion of farm land to crops for ethanol or for new biomaterials and still preserve basic ecological functions and meet growing demand for food? See green chemistry for innovation in this field.