Emulating Nature: The Rise of Industrial Ecology: Industry Is Looking to Nature's Examples of Sublime Efficiency to Find Ways to Improve the Sustainability of Our Production and Consumption Systems

Ecos, February-March 2006 | Go to article overview

Emulating Nature: The Rise of Industrial Ecology: Industry Is Looking to Nature's Examples of Sublime Efficiency to Find Ways to Improve the Sustainability of Our Production and Consumption Systems


At the Kalundborg industrial park in Denmark, one industry's unwanted byproduct has become another's sought-after process input. Central to this heavy industrial complex are a coal-fired power station and oil refinery, which exchange waste steam, waste heat, waste water and waste gas amongst themselves and neighbouring industries, saving thousands of tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions per year and reducing water consumption by 25 per cent.

Fly-ash, clinker and sulphur by-products are used by neighbouring industries to produce useful products, such as cement, thereby reducing landfill. Waste heat from the power station and refinery is also piped to nearby fish farms and residential houses--replacing some 3500 household oil heaters. (1)

Kalundborg is an increasingly recognised example of 'industrial symbiosis'; part of the broader, emerging 'industrial ecology' concept, which uses nature as a model for optimal material and energy flows, and to inspire environmentally oriented product and process designs.

'The concept of industrial ecology is still evolving and different people will view it in different ways,' says Professor Rene van Berkel, leader of the Regional Synergies Research Program at the Centre for Sustainable Resource Processing (CSRP) in Western Australia. (2) 'But the end result is economic, environmental and, in some cases, social sustainability.'

A key part of industrial ecology, and industrial symbiosis in particular, involves improving resource efficiency--getting the maximum value out of our resources without harming the environment. This means changing the linear nature of industrial systems--where raw materials are used, products are made and by-products are then disposed of--to a cyclical or 'closed loop' system, where the by-products are reused as energy or raw materials for another product or process. This closed loop system is based on natural ecosystems, where nothing is wasted--the by-products from one organism or process form the food source or raw material for another.

For example, at Kalundborg and other eco-industrial parks globally, material, energy and water exchanges between companies conserve natural and financial resources, and reduce production, material, energy, insurance and treatment costs and liabilities. They also enhance operating efficiencies and quality control, reduce exposure risks for the local population, and realise potential income through the sale of by-products and waste materials.

The success of Kalundborg's industrial symbioses is the result of gradual evolution rather than grand design. Like all industrial symbioses before and since, they are characterised by the close geographic proximity of the industries, open communication, a diversity of enterprises, and large, continuous by-product streams from two or more major process industries, which can be utilised by neighbouring industries.

Facets of industrial ecology

The thrust of Kalundborg and the concept of industrial ecology into international consciousness is largely credited to an article that appeared in Scientific American in 1989. (3) Written by General Motors Vice-President Robert Frosch and his colleague Nicholas Gallopoulos, 'Strategies for manufacturing' promoted examples of industrial activity that 'functioned as analogues of biological ecosystems', to achieve greater sustainability.

Industrial ecology has since become a rapidly evolving field of research, public policy and industrial practice. (4) The concept can be applied to sustainability issues in systems of production and consumption in two ways: through a 'systems' approach, or a 'product/process' approach.

The systems approach applies ecosystem principles to move from the linear resource flows (resource-product-waste) to circular flows, where waste is minimised and recycled. Systems applications include:

* Industrial metabolism--studying the physical processes that convert raw materials, energy and labour into finished products and wastes;

* Materials flow analysis--following the flow of resources from harvest or extraction to disposal or recycling (5); and

* Industrial symbiosis--engaging traditionally separate industries in collaborative ventures involving the physical exchange of materials, energy, water and/or by-products. …

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