Mitigation of environmental perturbations can only be achieved by focusing on technology, and developing policies and practices that encourage the evolution of environmentally preferable process and product technologies.
Economic actors, including private firms, must internalize environmental considerations and constraints to the extent possible, given existing exogenous constraints on firm behavior (e.g., laws such as the antitrust statutes or the prices of inputs and competitive products).
Policies and regulations must reflect the need for experimentation and research as different paths and methodologies are tried (rigid micromanagement through command-and-control regulation will in many cases be incompatible with systems-based approaches embodied in methodologies such as Design for Environment (DFE), as the unfortunate negative impact of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act on industrial recycling practices demonstrates (see the paper by Pfahl in this volume and, more generally, Office of Technology Assessment [OTA], 1992).
Obviously, a great deal of work remains to be done before we begin to fully understand industrial ecology and apply it to current industrial ecosystems (see the discussion by Ehrenfeld in this volume). In the interim, however, there can be no excuse for evading the application of the approaches we do understand to ongoing regulatory and industrial behavior. Although just emerging and still generally untested at this point, DFE is one potential methodology for accomplishing this. Design for Environment should be regarded more as an approach, than as an existing, implemented system.
Before introducing DFE, it is important to recognize that our current unsophisticated approaches tend not to recognize important differences among classes of products and materials. Thus, for example, it is useful to differentiate between two classes of manufactured items: low-design/high-material items, such as packaging, consumer personal care items (e.g., soaps and shampoos), and bulk chemicals; and high-design/low-material products such as automobiles, electronic and communications equipment, and airplanes.
These product streams generally have different life cycles within the economy. For example, the former tend to be used up and dispersed into the environment rather than discarded (packaging being an obvious exception). Materials use in the two cases also implies different recycling and disposal requirements. Materials use in a low-design/high-material product stream tends to be relatively simple, and, in many cases, few materials are incorporated into individual items (this need not be the case, however; a snack chip bag only 0.002 inch thick consists of nine separate layers of material [OTA, 1992]). Thus, recycling is fairly straightforward. On the other hand, the structure and materials use of a high-design/low-material product such as a printed wiring board are highly complex, and many materials, including different plastics, ceramics, alloys, frits, and glass-