Much of the research focuses on the following areas:
Industrial ecology proposes not to see industrial systems (for example a factory, an ecoregion, or national or global economy) as being separate from the biosphere, but to consider it as a particular case of an ecosystem - but based on infrastructural capital rather than on natural capital. It is the idea that as natural systems do not have waste in them, we should model our systems after natural ones if we want them to be sustainable.
Along with more general energy conservation and material conservation goals, and redefining commodity markets and product stewardship relations strictly as a service economy, industrial ecology is one of the four objectives of Natural Capitalism. This strategy discourages forms of amoral purchasing arising from ignorance of what goes on at a distance and implies a political economy that values natural capital highly and relies on more instructional capital to design and maintain each unique industrial ecology.
Industrial ecology was popularized in 1989 in a Scientific American article by Robert Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos. Frosch and Gallopoulos' vision was "why would not our industrial system behave like an ecosystem, where the wastes of a species may be resource to another species? Why would not the outputs of an industry be the inputs of another, thus reducing use of raw materials, pollution, and saving on waste treatment?" A notable example resides in a Danish industrial park in the city of Kalundborg. Here several linkages of byproducts and waste heat can be found between numerous entities such as a large power plant, an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical plant, a plasterboard factory, an enzyme manufacturer, a waste company and the city itself.
The scientific field Industrial Ecology has grown fast in recent years. The Journal of Industrial Ecology (since 1997), the International Society for Industrial Ecology (since 2001), and the journal Progress in Industrial Ecology (since 2004) give Industrial Ecology a strong and dynamic position in the international scientific community. Industrial Ecology principles are also emerging in various policy realms such as the concept of the Circular Economy that is being promoted in China. Although the definition of the Circular Economy has yet to be formalized, generally the focus is on strategies such as creating a circular flow of materials, and cascading energy flows. An example of this would be using waste heat from one process to run another process that requires a lower temperature. This maximizes the efficiency of exergy use. The hope is that strategy such as this will create a more efficient economy with fewer pollutants and other unwanted by products.
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The Kalundborg industrial park is located in Denmark. This industrial park is special because companies reuse each others' waste (which then becomes by-products). For example, the Energy E2 Asnæs Power Station produces gypsum as a by product of the electricity generation process; this gypsum becomes a resource for the BPB Gyproc A/S which produces plasterboards . This is one example of a system inspired by the biosphere-technosphere metaphor: in ecosystems, the waste from one organism is used as inputs to other organisms; in industrial systems, waste from a company is used as a resource by others.
IE examines societal issues and their relationship with both technical systems and the environment. Through this holistic view , IE recognizes that solving problems must involve understanding the connections that exist between these systems, various aspects cannot be viewed in isolation. Often changes in one part of the overall system can propagate and cause changes in another part. Thus, you can only understand a problem if you look at its parts in relation to the whole. Based on this framework, IE looks at environmental issues with a systems thinking approach.
Take a city for instance. A city can be divided into commercial areas, residential areas, offices, services, infrastructures, etc. These are all sub-systems of the 'big city’ system. Problems can emerge in one sub-system, but the solution has to be global. Let’s say the price of housing is rising dramatically because there is too high a demand for housing. One solution would be to build new houses, but this will lead to more people living in the city, leading to the need of more infrastructure like roads, schools, more supermarkets, etc. This system is a simplified interpretation of reality whose behaviors can be ‘predicted’.
In many cases, the systems IE deals with are complex systems. Complexity makes it difficult to understand the behavior of the system and may lead to rebound effects. Due to unforeseen behavioral change of users or consumers, a measure taken to improve environmental performance does not lead to any improvement or may even worsen the situation. For instance, in big cities, traffic can become problematic. Let's imagine the government wants to reduce air pollution and makes a policy stating that only cars with an even license plate number can drive on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Odd license plate numbers can drive on Wednesdays and Fridays. Finally, the other days, both cars are allowed on the roads. The first effect could be that people buy a second car, with a specific demand for license plate numbers, so they can drive every day. The rebound effect is that, the days when all cars are allowed to drive, some inhabitants now use both cars (whereas they only had one car to use before the policy). The policy did obviously not lead to environmental improvement but even made air pollution worse.
Moreover, life cycle thinking is also a very important principle in industrial ecology. It implies that all environmental impacts caused by a product, system, or project during its life cycle are taken into account. In this context life cycle includes
The transport necessary between these stages is also taken into account as well as, if relevant, extra stages such as reuse, remanufacture, and recycle. Adopting a life cycle approach is essential to avoid shifting environmental impacts from one life cycle stage to another. This is commonly referred to as problem shifting. For instance, during the re-design of a product, one can choose to reduce its weight, thereby decreasing use of resources. However, it is possible that the lighter materials used in the new product will be more difficult to dispose of. The environmental impacts of the product gained during the extraction phase are shifted to the disposal phase. Overall environmental improvements are thus null.
A final and important principle of IE is its integrated approach or multidisciplinarity. IE takes into account three different disciplines: social sciences (including economics), technical sciences and environmental sciences. The challenge is to merge them into a single approach.
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