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Industrial Ecology

Author: Prof P Marjanovic – SASOL Chair of Environmental Engineering, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of the Witwatersrand

( Article Type: Explanation )

A considerable amount of international debate about the actual meaning of sustainable development and how it can be applied continues to dominate many development decisions. Much of this debate has begun to centre on minimum resource use, efficiency requirements, or sustainable production. With a rising global population and ever-increasing levels of consumption among developed and developing countries, pressure on the earth’s many ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole promises to continue to mount well into the foreseeable future.

Increasing levels of consumption at the limits of the biosphere’s capacity to provide resources will definitely require dramatic improvements in resource use efficiency. At the limits to material throughput, sustainability requires that the growth in the consumption of goods and services be accompanied by a proportional decline in the energy and material intensity of that consumption. Industrial ecology research is focused on various strategies aimed at reducing the energy and material intensity of the economy. Immediate attention should also be given to the use of policy tools such as ecological tax reform in order to motivate such reductions. An example of what industrial ecology aims to achieve in practical terms is, if you currently drive a car that achieves a fuel efficiency of 100 kilometres per litre, by the year 2040, your new, super light car will achieve 100 kilometres from one tenth of a litre. Reductions of material and energy throughput by factors of 9 and 10 over the next quarter century are not as farfetched as they may at first seem. Japan, for example, reduced the energy and material inputs for its manufacturing sector by 40% between 1973 and 1984, at a time of considerable economic expansion.

'Industrial ecology’ refers to the exchange of materials between different industrial sectors where the ‘waste’ output of one industry becomes the ‘feedstock’ of another. Industrial ecology represents a relatively new and leading edge paradigm for business. It emphasises the establishment of public policies, technologies and managerial systems, which facilitate and promote production in a more co-operative manner. Implementing industrial ecology involves such things as life cycle analysis, closed loop processing, reusing and recycling, design for environment and waste exchange. Hypothetically, in a completely efficient economy functioning in harmony with ecosystems, there would be no waste.

The diagram below illustrates the changing nature of industrialisation culminating in full industrial ecology, whereby ‘all process systems and equipment, and plant and factor design, will eventually be fully compatible with existing industrial ecosystems as a matter of course.’

(Arthur D Little, ‘Industrial Ecology: An Environmental Agenda For Industry,’ Industrial Ecology Workshop: Making Business More Competitive. Toronto: Ministry of Environment and Energy, February 1994.)

The emergence of an eco-industrial infrastructure
Industrial ecology and technological developments that eliminate waste and maximise efficiency will be critical to achieving the required reductions in material and energy throughput in order to maintain a basic quality of life into the 21st century. The extent to which these measures make economic as well as ecological sense – i.e. are ‘eco-efficient’ – will determine whether market forces play a role as an important driver of change.

The successful establishment of industrial ecology linkages requires continuing implementation of projects that identify industrial ecology opportunities. Work is needed in order to clearly identify the regulatory and other policy barriers in order that they be removed. Governments, industry, academics – and other organisations that focus on establishing the right institutional, fiscal and policy environment for the practical implementation of pollution prevention technologies, sustainable technologies and industrial ecology – can help to ensure prosperity for their citizens and secure an important role for their countries in global efforts to achieve sustainable development.

Associated Sustainable Development Articles:

Sustainable Development ~ Manufacturing