Industrial Ecology: A Promising Approach to Attain Sustainability

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National Cheng Kung University

By John Paul Sipin De Guzman
National Cheng Kung University

Resource demand and environmental degradation have reached unsustainable levels. A sustainable future requires industrial systems’ attention and improvement in order to divert our society. To minimize the burden that industry puts onto the environment is the main challenge, while to divert industrial systems towards more sustainable ones is the strategy. Lastly, to create eco-industrial infrastructure by establishing the correlation between nature’s ecosystems and man-made industrial infrastructures is the solution.

The industrial sector implements solutions developed by nature in the form of fully sustainable systems of interdependent organisms. Biological concepts and terms would be implemented by the entire industrial sector while searching for the best alternative solution.

The biological concept of ecosystems and the industrial network theories both share the same interesting features. These same features have been noticed by scientists and business researchers. With the goal of maximizing production, the industrial sector slowly adapts solutions that have been developed by nature as fully sustainable systems of interdependent organisms. Biologists and ecologists found a correlation between their field and the modern industrial sector. However, the process of building industrial infrastructures as effectively as natural ecosystems would take some time. For the time being, the changes in industry are a plausible way to minimize environment degradation.

It is critical to understand fully the functions of the biological processes and ecosystems in order to comprehend the concept of eco-industrial infrastructures. Nature consists of different biological systems which are integrated into one livable, intricate, and interdependent cycle. The soil, water, air, and all species of animals and plants are indirectly connected to maintain each other’s existence and development. “The study of those living organisms and the web of relationships that binds all of us together is called ecology”1 (Chiras). One of the most important concepts in the science of ecology is an ecosystem – “a chemical, physical, and biological system that encompasses the entire surface of the planet” (Chiras).

Each ecosystem consists of living and non-living components. Producers, consumers and decomposers represent the three types of living organisms in the ecosystem. Without them, life in the ecosystem is impossible. Each one is active in different types of food chains and energy production cycle, forming intricate networks of feeding interactions within ecosystems. Everything is functioning within the constant process of interaction, reproduction, absorption, and elimination. Meanwhile sunlight, precipitation, and temperature represent the non-living components.

Owing to the fact that the Earth is a closed system, it has a feature of both creator and destroyer. Everything that exists within ecosystems is integrated into the intricate web of interdependence between organisms and matter; anything unnecessary is constantly being detoxified or decomposed by the Earth, recycled over and over, creating new flows of energy, nutrients and food. This closed system keeps the balance necessary for the ecosystems to exist and sustain (Chiras).

Man-made industrial networks exhibit similar processes, although the level to which interaction takes place is very low. Free markets allow the capital to flow from market to market, with the goal of maximizing use thereof. In the event a capitalist failed to use his resources correctly, he will immediately lose the same. Meanwhile, a wise capitalist may acquire capital and use it for his advantage. This illustrates that the capital is a fully recyclable resource which circulates throughout the entire business process.

In terms of the physical elements of the industrial infrastructure and business in general, the practices of recycling and the integration of different ‘organisms’ represented by companies decrease. This could be explained by the fact that the natural processes have existed since the Earth began, while industrial activity started just centuries ago. It may be possible that in the distant future, industrial infrastructures will be able to transform the way ecosystems have towards full sustainability. At present, their efficiency in resource use is minimal. The industrial sector has not yet fully developed the decomposer type of organisms, which would process the used resources back into the system with full nutrients.

In the industrial infrastructures, most of the physical nutrients are outsourced from outside the system. As they enter the system, they undergo different processes before being transformed into a good. This process exhibits a one-directional route. The finished good is likely impossible to be disassembled back to the original form of its components. Other elements become joined in such a way that they cannot be separated anymore (e.g. heavily coated metals). Even if the material itself comes from nature and is biodegradable (e.g. leather) it is often a subject of chemical processes that make it useless in recycling and not capable to being decomposed properly2 (Braungart, McDonough).

Furthermore, competition in the industrial world and the natural are different in the sense that the weakest contender in the former tends to be eliminated from the system while the weakest contender in the latter stays even after losing to the strongest contender. Thus, the balance is kept as the species continue to exist. In the industrial network, the liquidation of one firm not only eliminates it from the system, but also poses a threat to its partners or owners as the case may be.

Other interesting differences can be noted. Biological organisms reproduce themselves. On the other hand, firms produce products or services. Businesses have the ability to change from one type of product to another or even produce different types at the same time. By contrast, organisms are highly specialized and cannot change their behavior except over a long (evolutionary) time period3 (Ayres). However this is open for debate, as many companies seem to implement specialization for the purpose of maximizing the profits generated from their core competencies thereby reducing the costs of other operations through outsourcing and networking. The “first or second best in the industry or out” rule became fashionable in the 80s and is still commonly used by many of the biggest firms4 (Collins). This scenario makes businesses resemble natural evolutionary specialization.

The inevitable process of constant interaction makes the specializing businesses become more dependent on their environment, building infrastructures that could be compared to natural ecosystems. Since many companies envision giving importance to their core business, the tendency is to outsource other tasks which lead to reliance on subcontractors. This scenario of industrial environment becomes less of an integration of independent business players and more of an interconnected species which makes the industrial ecosystem.

Earth provides the ground on which natural ecosystems and industrial infrastructures thrive. More often than not, the space they occupy overlaps one another which results to interaction. However, industrial infrastructures often act as the destroyer of the natural ecosystems.

The trend accelerated in the recent past centuries during the Industrial Revolution. The digital age even aggravated the pace at which the trend is running. Alarming observations have come out from the threats connected with pesticide abuse, through the threat of overpopulation, up to the most recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which poses a deadly threat to all the living creatures underneath.

The states of nature of industrial and biological systems are completely incompatible. In part, the environment was disregarded as a major stakeholder by the industrial sector until recently when the signs of sickness started to manifest. Until recently, the environment was seen as an unlimited one-stop solution for all the needs of human beings.

Aside from regarding the environment as a resource, the industrial system regarded the natural system as obstruction to its progress. Skyscrapers replaced forests, while rivers serve as dumpsites for industrial wastes. The concept of industrial ecology is lacking. The same concept is needed and must be implemented immediately.

Industrial ecology is the study of the physical, chemical, and biological interactions and interrelationships both within and between industrial and ecological systems5 (Garner). The same signifies the need to place the entire industrial system in the context of geophysiology in order to utilize technologies using the most optimal and least harmful method in interaction with the Earth. Industrial metabolism offers an analytical approach to material and energy uses which can be observed within the industrial system as well as between artificial infrastructures and natural ecosystems. The goal is to understand the functioning of our societies’ physical basis, the inter-linkages of flows and product chain webs within the anthroposphere, and the exchange of materials and energy with the environment6 (Bringezu).

Industry and humanity in general can attempt to lessen the environmental burden to the minimum, while optimizing the resource efficiency of raw material and energy use within the industrial system (Garner). This translates to the specific characteristics of the Earth, the harmonization of technological infrastructure with the Earth’s unique biogeochemical processes and cycles7 (Tibbs).

Based on the abovementioned facts, industrial infrastructures can imitate the ability of natural ecosystems to sustain themselves and provide all living organisms therein with adequate nutrients, while keeping waste to a minimum. However, it is important to adopt a sustainable resource usage in which the waste of one product becomes the food for others.

This is linked to the biological concept of bio-mass. As argued by Bey, the individual participants of a mature ecosystem use resources and energy in a sustainable manner because the resource use of the entire system itself is sustainable. Bey observes that the participants in the natural ecosystem, even with the maximum preservation of their species in mind, do not tend to outgrow their natural habitats that would threaten the stability of the entire ecosystem.

By contrast, the industrial system which is mainly established to profit maximization is constantly increasing its biomass while increasing its consumption of resources and energy at a very fast rate. They have come to be the dominant actors on the planet, appropriating carrying capacity and photosynthetic production much beyond that of any other species. This scenario of industrial biomass enlargement results in overloading the two systems.

The ultimate goal of industrial ecology lies in the attainment of full eco-industrial equilibrium. A balance interaction between industrial and natural processes which coexist in symbiosis without colliding with each other is needed.

The idea of eco-industrial parks is the most promising concept to attain such eco-symbiosis between industrial infrastructures and natural ecosystems. The said idea would enable companies to build a network to reduce their waste, recover value and achieve economies of scale in their production processes8 (Tudor et al.). Companies sharing a site in an eco-industrial park would be able to build an industrial ecosystem of their own in which each company can use the waste of the other for economic benefit9 (Andrews). This scenario would eventually lead to the creation of networks that resemble natural ecosystems by recycling other organisms’ waste as food.

Eco-industrial parks can be setup, planned, and agreed to by the companies before any activity could take place. Also, it may be set up for more and more companies, integrating the use of eco-industrial parks along the process which is called an evolutionary process. In establishing eco-industrial parks, companies should first seek the approval of the local authorities where the park is going to be located. During this stage, the companies should undertake the task of creating the entire set of industrial facilities in the form of plants and warehouses. In the next stage, the companies must monitor closely their activities until they attain the interdependency level of an eco-industrial park. The task is not an easy one, though. To keep the wastes within the eco-industrial park, companies which are closely linked to each other in terms of their input and output must be collected to participate in the eco-industrial park building process. If this happens, sustainability would come next.

Assuming that wastes are kept within the eco-industrial park, the end products could reduce the capacity of the park. Thus, the end waste would need to be put someplace else which leads to the need of solving the entire sets of problem cycle.

Realization of the eco-industrial park as well as the industrial concept in general are still in an early stage. Therefore, hindrances and difficulties would be seen throughout the process. The greatest challenge could be the overall redesign of the industry concept itself. As early as the first human civilizations, humans had utilized environment resources without thinking that a time will come when the resources will be exhausted. Archaeologists find discarded reminders of the past – scrap stone, flints, and potsherds – in the rubbish dumps of the Neolithic period. People of that period also moved to new habitats when the old locations became unsuitable because of accumulated wastes10 (Frosch). Thus, the task at hand remains a great challenge.

The lessons of the planned economies of the former Soviet Union suggest that planning and controlling the industrial system is not the solution. Therefore, market forces should shoulder the task while making industrial ecology concepts profitable for companies.

Assuming industries and societies abandon their unsustainable practices and shift fully to the concepts of closing the industrial loop, many technical problems would still exist. As mentioned elsewhere in the essay, the intricacy of modern highly processed goods is so high that it is almost impossible to decompose them into the basic raw materials that have been used along the process. For instance, zinced steel slowly loses its physical properties during the constant re-melting process. This is only one of the problems that I see of importance at the moment. There could be more if further research is conducted. Unless we solve the existing problems, the solutions proposed herein would only delay the inevitable depletion of resources into waste which would be produced without value.

Meanwhile in the eco-industrial parks aspect, a major limitation in its realization is its potential to break apart. A small industrial network is vulnerable to one of the main enterprises leaving or looking elsewhere for its materials/products, thus affecting the functioning of the entire chain. In the natural ecosystems, habitats occupied by the species living therein find it impossible to abandon their habitats because they are genetically programmed to stay in their habitats to maintain sustainability. Whereas in industrial ecosystems, a company may leave the eco-industrial park at anytime if a more profitable opportunity comes in. Moreover, the task of forming a group of companies with related input and output so as to regulate their waste flows is almost impossible.

At this point, the future of the industrial ecology concept remains unclear. Because the industries have not yet found it a difficult task to procure their raw materials, they will continue on with their old practices of producing goods in an unsustainable manner. Unless the situation changes completely maybe that would be the starting point for them to consider the concept of industrial ecology. But I think it is better if we take the proactive approach now rather than to suffer the worst which could otherwise be avoided.


1. Chiras, D. (2001). Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future (6thEd.), Boston: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

2. Braungart, M., & McDonough, W. 2002. Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press.

3. Ayres, R. (1994). What is Industrial Metabolism? In Ayres, R. (1994). Industrial Metabolism: Restructuring for Sustainable Development. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

4. Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

5. Garner, A. (1995). Industrial Ecology: An Introduction. Retrieved 18 October, 2010, from

6. Bringezu, S. (2003). Industrial Ecology and Material Flow Analysis. In Bourg, D. & Erkman, S. (Ed.), Perspectives on Industrial Ecology. Sheffield: Greenleaf Publishing.

7. Tibbs, H. (1998). Humane Ecostructure: Can Industry Become Gaia’s Friend. Whole Earth 93, 61.

8. Tudor, T., Adam, E., & Bates, M. (2006). Drivers and limitations for the successful development and functioning of EIPs (eco-industrial parks).

9. Andrews, C. (1999). Putting Industrial Ecology into Place: Evolving Roles for Planners. Journal of the American Planning Association 65 (4), 364.

10. Frosch, R. (1997). Closing the Loop on Waste Material. In Richards, D. (Ed.), The Industrial Green Game – Implication for Environmental Design and Management. Retrieved 18 October, 2010, from