Use a Systems Engineering and Ecological Approach to Reduce Resource Use
We seek an environmentally benign, indefinitely sustainable economic system. A key ingredient of the economy is industry, one of the key providers of goods and services. The current industrial system uses technology in ways that can lead to environmentally troublesome results: toxic materials, solid wastes, liquid effluents, and gaseous emissions that, when released into the environment, have a negative impact on our quality of life and can lead to excessive resource use. We have often dealt with these results after the fact by treatment and remediation, at great cost and effort.
NEW SYSTEM IDEAS
Industrial ecology uses a systems engineering and ecological approach to integrate the design, production, and consumption of products to reduce the use of resources. It is based on the concept that natural systems tend to reuse and recirculate materials. It suggests a different way of thinking that focuses on the flows of matter and energy in the industrial system and how a more benign and efficient system of creating products and services could be created. Industrial people have begun to look at their wastes, effluents, and products in a different way. Effluents and products formerly considered as leaving the industrial system are now considered to be a part of the system and a company's intrinsic responsibility. In Germany, for example, novel policies have been developed that require consideration of the entire product cycle from extraction to final disposal.
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Industrial ecology includes thinking about ways to manage wastes and effluents; to prevent the use of materials that are toxic1 or otherwise dangerous or difficult to use and handle, so that they are not released into the environment; and to use wastes and effluents products themselves. It envisions an economic system whose processes and products lead to outputs that are reusable and recyclable. Waste is waste. Having purchased material at the front end of a plant, only to throw part of it away at the back end suggests that efficiency of material use might be improved; having a product that embodies the energy and effort needed to produce it go out of the plant door forever suggests that reusing the material and embodied energy at the end of the useful life of the product might be more efficient than disposing of the product.
We do not "consume" materials; we use energy to transform materials, to create materials from other materials. Many of our materials, particularly metals, are neither changed nor consumed in use, but merely stored (e.g., copper wire in walls and iron in automobile engine blocks). Even the contents of landfills, particularly if they were so designed, could be considered to be materials-inventory sites.
Material products generally and many wastes and effluents specifically embody energy and effort that make them potentially less expensive to use to make new products than starting from dispersed virgin raw materials. But systems must be appropriately designed. We must include in the economics the energy and effort that would be required to dispose of otherwise-discarded wastes, effluents, and products in an environmentally benign and acceptable manner.
Products Seen as Services
A further dimension of new possibilities is a re-examination of what is really being provided to customers as the product. Is the customer interested in cleaning
materials and implements or in a clean plant, in owning a washing machine or in washed clothes, in owning an automobile or in transportation? Changes in the answers to these questions might lead to changes in whether a material product is sold outright or leased and in whether a manufacturer has the right to replace, upgrade, or improve a product at times of its own choosing, as long as the service is continued or improved. Those possibilities build on old ideas but take on new dimensions when seen as ways for the industrial system to manage the environmental implications of material products and production. Some of the possibilities appear to be economically advantageous to both producer and consumer.
Science and technology can contribute by developing more "environmentally friendly" products.
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Leverage for Change: Service Products
The service industries (e.g., retailing, logistics, product distribution and transportation, hotels, and the financial industry) are large consumers of materials and energy. They also have great leverage on their suppliers of material products because they are very large buyers. Their interest in improving the efficiency of the material goods system and in choosing products that are more benign in the life-cycle effect of the product on the environment can be an important force for greater achievements in industrial ecology. It is important to bring them into thinking about these possibilities and, even more important, to learn how to develop market-based incentives to drive broad, creative, entrepreneurial efforts by the service sector.
We contend that investment in sustainability, environmental restoration, and environmental protection is the minimal contribution science and technology must provide if we are to achieve our environmental goals.
As a tool for protecting the environment, the regulatory approach will become increasingly ineffective if the cost of compliance continues to rise and if global competitiveness and market forces take hold. In addition, it is unlikely that global environmental regulation will become a reality for dealing with environmental problems that cross national boundaries. The alternative for the United States is to deploy a science and technology strategy to decrease the cost of industrial-process modification (preventing waste and product stewardship) to protect our air, water, and food. Using scientific knowledge generated to provide the basis for risk-based decision-making offers a great opportunity to create a sustainable ecosystem.
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Industrial people have begun to work on a number of new directions, all requiring R&D. Efforts by some corporations are described in a book from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), Corporate Environmental Practices: Climbing the Learning Curve (NAE 1994a). The vast majority of these efforts are based on industrial activity and R&D on its own—without or only supplemented by government involvement.
Design for Environment and Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA)
To carry out an industrial ecology program, we require tools to help us to understand the environmental and system consequences of design choices. We need ways of deciding what the effects of product-design, and process-design, and materials choices will be on the material outputs of the manufacturing system, including the fates of the products when they are finally discarded by consumers. Where will they go, are they well adapted to reuse and recycling of parts and materials into new products, and how can they be reincorporated into the industrial system to the profit of the original manufacturer or of someone else in the industrial system? For the long-term, we must look for and encourage systems that
Start from renewable sources.
Maximize the useful life of the product.
Reuse, recycle, and reclaim spent products at their highest possible value.
Ultimately recover residual energy before returning the product to the environment in a form that permits another cycle to begin.
Such approaches must incorporate the ability to examine alternative possibilities and their effects and must become the means to make design choices so that products and processes can be both economically sound (in the context of including ultimate costs) and sound in their environmental consequences.
We believe that science and technology are essential to meeting current and future environmental goals. None of the goals related to environmental issues will be accomplished without extensive and creative application of innovative technologies. The combined dimensions of the technological basis of modern civilization and the remaining unmet human needs for current and future generations dictate the use of new technologies to replace or modify existing practices across a wide spectrum of activity. These new technologies must be sustainable, more efficient, and less resource-intensive and must work in concert with natural systems. Most of these technologies will be applied by and through the design and construction industry.
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A report from the National Academy of Engineering. The Greening of Industrial Ecosystems (NAE 1993) describes how corporations use some of those tools in their practice and possible tools that can be used.
Science and technology can contribute by making sure a systems approach is used that looks at all aspects of the life cycle.
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Alternative Manufacturing Processes
An industrial ecology program should include an examination of alternative manufacturing processes and alternative paths to the same or similar processes. For example, what are all the alternative paths for organic synthesis of particular chemical products, and what are the implications of the various paths for the nature of intermediate process chemicals, energy consumption, and the required facilities and facility investments? This is a classic and fundamental problem of chemical engineering, but it requires new tools to explore a wider universe of possibilities and the consequence of alternative paths. Similar questions arise in metals processing and other industrial process streams.
Efficient Separation Technology
Many manufacturing and process technologies lead to increases in entropy via mixing of materials or their dissipation into the environment. When the materials in question are toxic, the result is particularly troublesome. In many cases, more-effective technology for using energy to unmix materials that have been mixed would be useful.
It is possible to separate materials with the brute-force expenditure of energy, it is sometimes possible to do it by paths that are more thermodynamically efficient than the obvious ones. Sometimes, it is a matter not of efficiency alone, but of convenience with respect to time or capital equipment. The search for effective and efficient separation technologies—particularly chemical-specific adsorption, membranes, and similar low-energy devices—is fundamentally worth while.
FINDINGS, CONCLUSION, AND RECOMMENDATIONS
A key component of industrial ecology is analyzing the environmental effects of all materials in manufacture, use, and disposal. Companies find that the use of the industrial ecology approach in the design process provides them with more options for reducing the human health and ecological effects of their products and processes. However, its use is in its infancy. The information, planning,
The nation's environmental goals for the future should focus on (1) general stewardship of the environment, including industrial ecology, (2) much-improved public awareness and understanding of the risk-benefit and cost-benefit aspects of environmental stewardship, and (3) use of risk-benefit and cost-benefit methods for decisions pertaining to the environment.
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standards, and societal changes needed to implement this concept on a sufficient scale to make a difference are still lacking. The problem of implementation is made more difficult by the fragmentation of industry and, to some extent, by the present trend toward decentralization and devolution of hitherto vertically integrated industries.
Some form of ''societal vertical integration" among many institutions and economic entities "from cradle to grave" will be necessary for a solution. How it can be achieved is an important topic for research and public-policy debate.
However, the actions implied by the industrial ecology concept are not practiced widely. There are a number of barriers to its adaptation by industry, including such economic issues as the high cost of changing the existing infrastructure, concerns about the compatibility of such activities with the existing regulatory framework, fears of future legal liability, and inadequacy of information on and understanding of the industrial ecology concept.
In our current efforts to reduce the pollution generated by and the ecological impact of society's industrial activities, we most often use "end-of-the-pipe" controls. However, end-of-pipe treatment is increasingly less likely to be the most cost-effective or the most-desirable means of pollution control.
In recent years, a new way of thinking about how to reduce environmental impacts has been developed. It is called industrial ecology, and it is influencing the thinking of many major corporations in how they handle environmental issues. Industrial ecology takes a systems engineering and ecological approach to integrate the producing and consuming segments of the design, production, and use of services and products to reduce environmental impacts.
Furthermore, industrial ecology requires substantial recycling, including the use of one plant's waste stream as feed for another plant, and therefore requires coordination, planning, and perhaps proximity—all of which could make it more difficult for it to achieve widespread use. One key challenge is to formulate effective economic incentives for developing a market-driven industrial ecology. Another is to alleviate the liability and regulatory barriers that inhibit the full application of industrial ecology.
Design of products and processes for environmental compatibility should make use of such mechanisms as life-cycle analysis, alternative manufacturing processes, and efficient separation technologies that use energy to unmix materials that have been mixed.
Products and processes should be designed to accommodate recycling and reuse more readily.
Regulations introduced for other purposes often create barriers to the use of economic incentives for promoting the adoption of the principles of industrial ecology. Research should be aimed at identifying and eventually removing such barriers.
The use of industrial ecology approaches should be expanded to many industries through dialogue among an ever-widening circle of corporations, governments, academic institutions and environmental and citizen organizations.
Research should be conducted to develop methods for chemical species-specific separations that yield streams that are economically recoverable or dischargeable to the environment.
Research on new or improved catalytic systems that offer improved yields and improved specificity from more-benign chemicals should be promoted.
For more information and guidance, the reader should refer to the following:
NAE (National Academy of Engineering), The Greening of Industrial Ecosystems (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993).
NAE (National Academy of Engineering), Corporate Environmental Practices: Climbing the Learning Curve (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994).
NAE (National Academy of Engineering), Industrial Ecology: U.S.-Japan Perspectives (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994).
NRC (National Research Council), Tracking Toxic Substances at Industrial Facilities: Engineering Mass Balance Versus Materials Accounting (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1990).
NRC (National Research Council), Opportunities in Applied Environmental Research and Development (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1991).
NRC (National Research Council), Industrial Waste Production and Utilization (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995).