Industrial Ecology: Current Practices and Future Prospects

By G. Venkatesh
March 2011

The Author is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Department of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), in Trondheim, Norway. → See also:

Before understanding the current realities of industrial ecology, it would be good to take a cursory peep into the past and study the ‘wherefrom’. A focus on the current realities would then lead, seamlessly to possibilities in the future, or rather the imperatives for the future.

As with any trend or field of endeavour, one always tries to locate the genesis of industrial ecology in time. It goes without saying that nothing springs up overnight from nowhere. Ideas are brewing all along, albeit in different manifestations and avatars; and gradually there are offshoots which emerge and spread slowly. There are moments when these ideas lie dormant, or perhaps active in isolated corners of the world. But when the right time comes, they spring forth. This applies to industrial ecology. And to quote Victor Hugo, nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come!

Introduction - Beginnings

In 1970, the term ‘industrial ecology’ is said to have been used in a journal, which never went beyond the first and inaugural issue. In 1972, the Ministry of Industry and International Trade in Japan used the term when it was mulling over restructuring the Japanese industry. One thus sees inroads in both academics and policy in the 70s. Several developments in the field of environmental engineering characterized the 70s and 80s. Of course, industrial ecology is not the same as, but certainly, an offshoot of environmental engineering – a kind of a rebel child if one may say so, inheriting all the traits but wanting something greater! One should not discount the developments which happened in the field of environmental thinking as these formed the basis on which industrial ecology later hoisted itself. In 1989, in a currently-much-referred-to paper in the journal Science, Frisch and Gallopoulos used the metaphor to suggest that anthropogenic systems could be modeled on natural systems. Several textbooks on industrial ecology followed in the 1990s, the ISO 14000 series of standards was launched to form the bedrock of Life Cycle Environmental Analysis, the World Resources Institute published a report on resource flows in the US, Japan, Germany and the Netherlands (setting the basis for the emergence of new indicators to measure sustainable economic development; and providing impetus to materials flow analysis). In 1997, the Journal of Industrial Ecology was launched at Yale. The first decade of the 21st century saw the institution of Masters and PhD research programmes in industrial ecology. Funds started flowing in from governments and industry alike.

When a field of endeavour is taken up by different individuals and groups from around the world, who work independently on developing it, the perceptions vary slightly. You would thus have many definitions propounded at different instants in time. Over time, one of these may come to be identified as a standard, if at all that should happen. Industrial ecology means different things to different people. Definitions need not necessarily be single sentences, but often they may run into several sentences forming a small paragraph. This is true in the case of industrial ecology. It is often the first sentence of this group of sentences which conveys the guiding principle or the predominant thought in the mind of the definer. Thus, Tom Graedel and Allenby defined it as a means by which humanity can deliberately and rationally approach and maintain a desirable carrying capacity (Graedel & Allenby, 2003). The Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers defined IE as an objective multi-disciplinary study of industrial and economic systems and their linkages with fundamental natural systems. Robert White of the US Academy of Engineering, defined it as the study of the flows of materials and energy in industrial and consumer activities, of the effect of these flows on the environment, and of the influence of economic, social, political and regulatory factors on the flow, use and transformation of resources. Edward Wilson of Harvard University defined it as the science of multi-scale planetary stewardship, involving the practice of intelligent oversight of the planet as it undergoes natural and anthropogenically-driven variability.

In year-2007, this author carried out an informal survey (Venkatesh, 2007) in order to find out what people associated with industrial ecology feel about it. A former classmate of this writer said that industrial ecology in 2007 was very much like old wine in a new bottle and most people in the industry were actually aware of what it tried to say. One would say that intuitively, all of us are aware of the IE principles to some extent, but belief and trust in the veracity of these principles has been hard to come by. A Professor from Nairobi said that he had faced some problems with rechristening ‘Advanced Industrial Chemistry’ as ‘Industrial Ecology’, though the contents of this subject he was teaching were the same as those of IE. Once again, just as IE can be defined in different ways, and it can mean different things to different people, it may often be referred to by different names! The founder of the Resource Optimisation Initiative – an NGO based in Bangalore, India (who is no more in our midst at the time of writing), believed that the time was ripe for a Masters Programme in Industrial Ecology to be started in India.

Current Status

With that backdrop, it is apt now to focus on the current realities. In other words, where we are poised at the moment and how we understand industrial ecology in year-2011. Figure 1 depicts graphically the layers in industrial ecology – thought, precept and practice. The origin of any field of endeavour is in ideas and theories which are developed at the ‘thought’ level. The minds in the scientific and academic communities around the world conceive ideas and principles. These can of course, just remain at thought level, and not be converted to word or deed. However, ideas need to be converted into concrete action. This is indicated by the dotted arrows linking up thought with deed and the Science/Academics oval with the Society/Industry oval. Oftentimes, academia-industry and academia-society interactions enable a translation of ideas to practice. However, this is not often possible, and where it is not possible, the ideas need to seek the aid of policies. Governments and public agencies would then act as intermediaries to break any impasse that may exist. In some cases, this would take longer than anticipated. In some cases, ideas need not be converted to policies before being implemented. They have the power and the strength to directly influence the society/industry. A case of actions speaking louder than words.

Figure 1
Figure 1 · Layers in Industrial Ecology development

The question now arises: Why should ideas and theories related to industrial ecology be implemented? What is the basis on which the scientists and academicians can inspire and convince policy-makers and people in general about the need for a change in the way things are done? It follows that industrial ecology is an approach which we need to adopt in our journey towards the elusive goal of sustainability. The industrial ecology approach in other words is synonymous with sustainable development – the integration of the economic, social and the environmental aspects of development in decision-making. The priorities vary from time to time and from place to place. Even within a country, no two provinces or states or cities or towns would have the same priorities. A one-size-fits-all approach is thus not what is advocated. While it would be irrational to expect everyone everywhere to assign the same importance to the social, economic, environmental at all times, as a matter of principle, one may say, that one should try to strike a balance by optimizing the use of resources, ensuring a reasonable degree of social welfare and keeping the economy healthy enough. As things stand on date, however, in most parts of the world – be it the developing world or the developed world, the economic aspect often is given the first priority – not necessarily at the expense of the social and the environmental though. Everything gets monetized. When options are to be compared, everything is reduced to monetary terms. Even human lives! Sample these viewpoints from the industry: ‘As with all business, the economic factors must be given priority as an economically unsustainable business will not be in business long enough to impact the social and environmental aspects’ (Evan Puzey, the CEO of the Asia-Pacific operations of Kewill, in Venkatesh (2011a)). ‘A company must be profitable to stay in business and no one must question this.’ (Onno Boots, Regional Managing Director, South East Asia and the Pacific, TNT in Venkatesh (2011a)). Economists and businessmen these days often swear by Milton Friedman, the American economist – Corporate officials must focus on making money for their stockholders. Expecting them to accept any other social responsibility undermines the foundations of free society. Well, Friedman may still be right, if stockholders are interpreted as stakeholders and not just as people owning monetary shares in the operation of an enterprise. Then, it may be said that the environment and society also are rightful stakeholders in the enterprise.

While pleasing everyone is impossible and should never be the starting point of any endeavour, it is good to know about the viewpoints and opinions of people.

We know that integration is complex. Systems have now become very complex and pleasing everyone is impossible. Technology is not a silver bullet and technology-optimism is naïve to say the least. So, where do we go from here onwards?

Figure 2
Figure 2 · Mapping individual holistic development to
global sustainable development

…Quo Vadis?

A little bit of introspection and spiritual awakening will not be out of place. Figure 2 borrowed from Venkatesh (2010) maps the individual onto the earth – the microcosm onto the macrocosm. Each of the three levels in Figure is composed of human beings and it is essential that human beings in general – be they scientists, policymakers or engineers in the industry or even housewives, understand the three levels of human existence apropos the earth as a whole. The physical which is the grossest can be likened to the economic aspect. Men work to fulfill their material needs, comforts and luxuries. They earn, save (invest) and pay (taxes and expenses to procure their material needs), and thus keep the economy chugging along. Mental, emotional and intellectual development enables the members of the human race to interact on a subtler level. Cooperation, collaboration and helping each other in need, is vital for the sustenance of societies; and social development. Even subtler is the spiritual level. This is very much akin to what the environment is to societies and industries. One would fan out to understand the macrocosm, and delve in to understand oneself and one’s relation to this macrocosm.

Holistic individual development entails physical, mental / emotional / intellectual and spiritual growth of the individual, without one conflicting with or happening at the expense of the other/s. Any individual who lays emphasis on his personal holistic development, will automatically contribute immensely to global sustainable development. It must also be added at this juncture that the ability to sacrifice and delay gratification whenever called for, at an individual level, is extremely vital. However, we are all aware of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the prevalence of free-riders, which deters individuals from taking initiatives in the right and desired direction. This is an obstacle one is well aware of, and needs to be countered and surmounted for industrial ecology to happen – read sustainable development to happen – in the future.

Talking of social, economic, environmental or physical, mental and spiritual brings us to John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line (Elkington, 1994), which the corporate world is slowly adopting. There are differences in the degrees of adoption however, but one may say that business enterprises and governments around the world, are more or less convinced that this is the way ahead. However, they are unsure of how to implement the triple bottom line approach, and some lack the belief in the reasonableness of such an approach.

Figure 3
Figure 3 · The 3-P approach propagated by John Elkington

The skepticism referred to in the previous paragraph is well-founded when you refer to Figure 4 for instance. Social welfare or happiness or contentment is a very complex end-goal. It encompasses the cultural, religious, ethical, moral, as well as health and educational aspects, in addition to employment and earnings, thus linking it to economic growth. An old monument may be much more than a mere tourist attraction in a country. The government may be spending a lot of money on its upkeep though the return on investment may be sluggish. It would be stark and clear that demolishing it and building a hospital or school or a factory on the site would contribute to the economy and satisfy some other social needs. Yet, decision-making cannot ignore the role heritage and culture plays in the lives of the people.

The economic aspect once again entails the development of the primary, secondary and the tertiary sectors of the economy – not one growing rapidly at the expense of the others, as has been the case in many African countries where economies are so heavily dependent on mining and agriculture. And when the environmental aspect is considered, you have the air, water and the soil/land to care about. One notes that environmental impacts are often weighted, and one is often given a higher priority over the others. Global warming for instance seems to be more important than eutrophication, acidification etc for example.

Figure 4
Figure 4 · Not just pollution of the media, but also
use of resources - water, biomass, minerals etc.

Trade-offs and compromises are inevitable, but not well-defined. How much and how much of which? These questions constantly befuddle decision-makers and captains of industry. Further, when we consider the fact that we are not moving towards a static, well-defined equilibrium, but a dynamic, ever-changing one, and when we also realize that sustainability is an emergent property – one realizes after implementing a set of strategies, that the state one has reached is not sustainable after all. External factors keep changing, and with them, what one defines as a state of sustainability. Change being the only constant, to quote Heraclitus, sustainability is to be constantly pursued. However, whenever there are changes, and conflicts among the different aspects of sustainable development arise, the law needs to step in, as symbolized in Figure 4 by the lubricating oil can, with the much-needed course corrections. Further, it is also a known fact that policies, once in place, are very difficult and cumbersome to change. This also applies to human behaviourial patterns.

All this entails knowing the various sub-systems well, and also the correlations between them. This calls for an efficient system of data gathering, and also an understanding of the correlations between discrete events in sub-systems. The more complex the systems are, the greater the uncertainty in the effect (type, timing and magnitude) an event would have on the others. We are verily entering an age of information revolution. For industrial ecology to entrench itself and be instrumental in enabling the journey towards sustainability, the infosphere needs to grow.

Table 1 sums up in a nutshell how industrial ecology has to restructure itself – or evolve in other words – over the next few years (Graedel & Allenby, 2003)

Table 1 · Desired evolution of industrial ecology into the future
From To
Looking to the past Thinking about the future
Fragmented Systemic
Gross insults Micro-toxicity
Environmental improvements Sustainability
Local Global
Pastoral Urban
More technology Better technology and social engineering
Developed world Developing world
Isolated Connected
Regulation Cooperation
Low-hanging fruit More difficult-to-attain goals


In conclusion, it would be apt to dwell in brief, on the knowledge gained from trying to understand the current realities on the one hand, and the desired changes in the industrial ecology approach on the other. These are presented as bulleted points hereunder:

References and Acknowledgements


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