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E-Books: A Handbook of Industrial Ecology

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Industrial ecology goals and definitions

Setting out the goals and boundaries of an emerging field is a hapless task. Set them too conservatively and the potential of the field is thwarted. Set them too expansively and the field loses its distinctive identity. Spend too much time on this task and scarce resources may be diverted from making concrete progress in the field.

But in a field with a name as provocative and oxymoronic as industrial ecology, the description of the goals and definitions is crucial. Hence this introductory chapter describes the field of industrial ecology, identifying its key topics, characteristic approaches, and tools. The objective is to provide a map of the endeavors that comprise industrial ecology and how those endeavors relate to each other. In doing so, we seek to provide a common basis of discussion, allowing us then to delve into more conceptual discussions of the nature of the field.

No field has unanimity on goals and boundaries. A field as new and as ambitious as industrial ecology surely has a long way to go to achieve even a measure of consensus on these matters, but, as we hope this chapter shows, there is much that is coalescing in research, analysis, and practice.

DEFINING INDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY

The very name industrial ecology conveys some of the content of the field. Industrial ecology is industrial in that it focuses on product design and manufacturing processes. It views firms as agents for environmental improvement because they possess the technological expertise that is critical to the successful execution of environmentally informed design of products and processes. Industry, as the portion of society that produces most goods and services, is a focus because it is an important but not exclusive source of environmental damage.

A Handbook of Industrial Ecology’s Cover

Industrial ecology is ecological in at least two senses. As argued in the seminal publication by Frosch and Gallopoulos (1989) that did much to coalesce this field, industrial ecology looks to non-human natural’ ecosystems as models for industrial activity. This is what some researchers have dubbed the ‘biological analogy’ (Wernick and Ausubel 1997; Allenby and Cooper 1994). Many biological ecosystems are especially effective at recycling resources and thus are held out as exemplars for efficient cycling of materials and energy in industry. The most conspicuous example of industrial reuse and recycling is an increasingly famous industrial district in Kalundborg, Denmark (Ehrenfeld and Gertler 1997; Chapter 27). The district contains a cluster of industrial facilities including an oil refinery, a power plant, a pharmaceutical fermentation plant, and a wallboard factory. These facilities exchange by-products and what would otherwise be called wastes. The network of exchanges has been dubbed ‘industrial symbiosis’ as an explicit analogy to the mutually beneficial relationships found in nature and labeled as symbiotic by biologists. Second, industrial ecology places the human technological activity industry in the widest sense – in the context of the larger ecosystems that support it, examining the sources of resources used in society and the sinks that may act to absorb or detoxify wastes. This latter sense of ‘ecological’ links industrial ecology to questions of carrying capacity and ecological resilience, asking whether, how, and to what degree technological society is perturbing or undermining the ecosystems that provide critical services to humanity. Put more simply, economic systems are viewed, not in isolation from their surrounding systems, but in concert with them.

Robert White, the former president of the US National Academy of Engineering, summarized these elements by defining industrial ecology as . ‘the study of the flows of materials and energy in industrial and consumer activities, of the effects of these flows on the environment, and of the influences of economic, political, regulatory, and social factors on the flow, use, and transformation of resources’ (White 1994). This broad description of the content of industrial ecology can be made more concrete
by examining core elements or foci in the field:

  • the biological analogy,
  • the use of systems perspectives,
  • the role of technological change,
  • the role of companies,
  • dematerialization and eco-efficiency, and
  • forward-looking research and practice.

Contents

The Contents of Industrial Ecology Handbook

  • PART I CONTEXT AND HISTORY
  • PART II METHODOLOGY
  • PART III ECONOMICS AND INDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY
  • PART IV INDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY AT THE NATIONAL/REGIONAL LEVEL
  • PART V INDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY AT THE SECTORAL/MATERIALS LEVEL
  • PART VI APPLICATIONS AND POLICY IMPLICATIONS

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