We are shifting from the models and metaphors of physics to the models and metaphors of biology to help us understand today's dilemmas and opportunities.
John Naisbett and Patricia Aburdene,
Megatrends 2000: Ten New Directions for the 1990s
Industrial Ecology Analogues: Field Ecology
ROBERT A. FROSCH
Industrial ecology is predicated on the idea that industrial systems have characteristic ecologies. These ecologies are defined by the metabolism of energy and materials in interrelated and interactive industrial and consumer patterns. Analogous to field ecology, industrial ecology provides a useful framework for examining the operational aspects of industrial activities. Today it is being applied to guide the alteration of industrial ecosystems toward greater environmental and economic sustainability.
The application of the field ecology analogy to industrial systems is based on the observation that in a biological ecosystem some organisms use sunlight, water, and minerals to grow, eliminate waste products, and die. These organisms are consumed by others, which produce wastes of their own. These wastes are in turn food for other organisms, some of which may convert the wastes into the minerals used by the primary producers, and some of which consume each other in a complex network of processes in which everything produced is used by some organism for its own metabolism. Similarly, in the industrial ecosystem, each process and network of processes must be viewed as a dependent and interrelated part of a larger whole. The analogy between the industrial ecosystem concept and the biological ecosystem is not perfect, but much could be gained if the industrial system were to mimic the self-sustaining character of the biological analogue.
What does this analogy reveal? In natural ecological systems, the total system essentially operates as a waste minimization system. Nothing that is produced by one organism or one part of the system as a waste is considered by the total system to be a waste if it is a source of useful material and energy. Through biological and microbiological decomposition of waste, microorganisms themselves are turned into food for some other organism such that energy (within the limits of the second law of thermodynamics) and material tend to circulate in a large, complex web of interrelated organisms. One practical application of the analogy is in finding ways to connect different industries, plants, and processes within a naturally operating web such that the waste from one industry, plant, or process becomes useful to another. This essentially minimizes the total of industrial waste, although it does not necessarily minimize the waste from any particular process or plant. This distinction is important because system optimization allows for greater resilience and is more effective than subsystem optimization.
Several factors affect how linkages between and among industries can be realized to optimize the economic and environmental efficiency of materials use (or waste). First, there must be information about the waste and where it exists. Information about acceptable inputs to industrial processes can also provide an incentive for altering processes so that waste is used rather than discarded. This
information may not always be available because some industries are secretive about their processes. In the United States, some of this information is transferred through waste exchange schemes, while in Japan it occurs through informal and formal networks such as the keiretsu (industrial alliances). The informal approach that works in Japan, however, may run counter to U.S. antitrust laws. Moreover, the keiretsu structure in Japan does not guarantee success in linking member companies of a keiretsu for waste use. These factors suggest that more effective markets for waste trading may have to be devised.
Second, markets for waste by-products can provide the incentive for their recovery. In the United States, 75 percent, by weight, of automobiles is recycled in the absence of legal requirements that they be recycled. Some components are used as repair parts, or are remanufactured, and others are used to recover valuable materials. This recycling is driven by the existence of markets for the recovered material. The remaining 25 percent of the material (made up of plastic, fluids, glass, rubber, and other materials) is shredded into “fluff” and ends up in landfills, although it is a likely candidate for reprocessing in cement kilns. If cement kilns are used to reduce the quantity of waste from automobile recycling, they become part of the industrial ecosystem of automobile manufacture and recycle.
Last, both environmental and legal regulatory structures can inadvertently impede the linking of industries or industrial processes for efficient materials use. Although they were not intended for this purpose, many of the U.S. environmental structures were developed around media-specific regulations. They focused on the disposal and treatment of waste, not on minimizing waste from a systems perspective. For example, some of the regulation concerning the transportation and processing of waste discourage the reuse of waste rather than provide incentives for reuse. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), for instance, if something is classified as a hazardous waste material, restrictions are placed on its transportation and its potential use or disposal. The regulatory burdens associated with handling the material can be enormous. The restrictions apply even when the waste material is precisely equivalent to an industrial chemical or hazardous chemical that may be purchased on the open market. Thus, if the waste stream contains cyanide or a toxic hydrocarbon, the waste is regulated under RCRA such that reuse of the material is prohibitively expensive. Instead the waste has to be discarded. Yet, at the same time, cyanide or hydrocarbon solvents may be purchased from a chemical manufacturer 's catalog. The result is unnecessary use of virgin material and unnecessary management and disposal of potentially useful material.
Industrial Ecology Analogues: Venous-Arterial Systems
Industrial ecology is a complex, largely interdependent systems engineering problem in which the metabolization of materials and energy is subject to economic, environmental, social, and political factors. The depletion of energy and resources and the pollution of air, water, and soil are due to inattention to production systems. This inattention is due, in part, to existing economic, social, and political factors.
If the market prices of materials and energy more accurately reflected their environmental costs, they would be used differently. For example, materials are moved several times in the manufacture of a product. Movements can be traced from the primary industry to the secondary industry, then from the secondary industry to the tertiary industry, and finally from stores to customers to final users. Some of these systems are redundant and could be eliminated by manufacturing products closer to the markets for those products. Environmental and energy costs associated with the transportation and distribution of materials would then be greatly reduced, producing a positive effect on the environment. Yet, socioeconomic and political factors may prevent facilities from being located in this way.
As in the human body, which depends on a well-balanced system of arteries and veins, maintaining an ecological balance in an industrial society requires that recycling systems (or the Vein Industries) work in harmony with the conventional manufacturing systems (the Artery Industries). The lack of Vein Industries damages the ecological balance and threatens the survival of the society.
The challenge to industrialized countries is to minimize environmental problems below sustainable development limits so that developing countries can advance while industrial advanced countries maintain their living standards. There is a need for advanced technologies that save energy and materials and recycle wastes so that natural resources are conserved. The prevention of environmental problems will require a life-cycle approach that considers mineral extraction and processing, product and process designs, product use, reuse and recycling, manufacturing systems, and effective use and disposal of waste.
Japan's industrial policy supports the development of venous (recycling/reprocessing) industries just as in the past it supported developing arterial industries (production/manufacturing). The success of this strategic initiative, however, will require the development of markets for
the recycled products and the involvement of end users. A product designed to be recycled will require mechanisms for recovery and recycling, including the cooperation of end users, for successful reintroduction of used materials and energy into the economy.
“Domestic symbiotic competitiveness” inherent in Japanese industrial policy is conducive to developing technologies to improve the existing industrial ecology. Symbiotic competitiveness is precompetitive collaboration among competing companies; it stops as soon as one company begins to invest aggressively in market development. Industrial ecology, which is still in the conceptual stage, provides opportunities for such precompetitive collaboration on a global scale.
Industrial Ecology Analogues: “Gaia”
Industrial ecology must be considered within the context of Earth 's “dissipative structure,” as characterized in James Lovelock's hypothesis of “Gaia.” This hypothesis regards the biosphere and surface of the Earth as a living entity; the Earth exists as a free body in space amidst strong energy flows from the sun. The interchange of energy and materials over billions of years has resulted in the coevolution of the biosphere and surface of the Earth (a process Lovelock named Gaia) in a self-organizing dissipative structure. To be sustainable, civilization has to achieve its own self-organization as a holistic lower structure of Gaia, which together with the biosphere is homeostatic in its metabolism (see Figure 2). Based on this hypothesis, the flow of materials and energy of industrial activities is kept in harmony with the consumption and excretion of the biosphere. Strong negative feedback systems are needed to maintain the delicate balance and to guard against deviations in the flow.
At the macrolevel of Gaia, harmony of material and energy flows is maintained through the circulation of air and water and the movement of the Earth's crust in the biosphere. The strong negative feedbacks are provided through natural systems such as respirative and photosynthetic reactions and the food chain. At the microlevel of individual living things, elements make up a hierarchical structure of molecules, cells, organizations, and organs. Each level functions as an element of the higher level and in turn the whole feeds back to the lower level, as a holistic organization.
Industry, as a component of the complex, natural system, can control the flow of energy and materials within the economy and organize economic activities into a new dissipative structure. Therefore, it is important to find the fundamental principles or structures that sustain the dissipative structure of the biosphere rather than to try only to mimic or imitate the biological world. The biosphere organization is characterized by balanced material flows and homeostasis (a state of physiological equilibrium produced by a balance of functions and of chemical composition within an organism).
For industry to be a complementary component of the biosphere, material flows must be balanced, and negative feedback mechanisms must be created to provide homeostasis. This can be achieved in the following ways:
Matching material flows to the assimilative capacity of the biosphere.
First, a sufficient flow (in quantity and quality) of energy and materials is needed. Output from industry to society must be plentiful enough and of sufficient quality (low-entropy) to meet humanity' s needs.
Second, there must be sufficient industrial capacity to accept high-entropy resources (waste materials and dissipated energy) as input from society.
Third, the input and output between industry and the biosphere must be harmonized with the biosphere's homeostatic characteristics.
Providing negative feedback through social systems and industrial recycling.
Negative feedback systems are needed to compensate for any tendencies in industry to be nonhomeostatic. Any mechanisms in society that guard against environmental malfunctions can provide the negative feedback needed. (In this sense, the growing global movement for environmental protection can be interpreted as a healthy sign of civilized society acquiring a self-organizing capability.) Negative feedback through regulatory restrictions, however, rigidly serves a single function. To maintain flexibility, negative feedback must not be imposed externally but should be intrinsic to industrial operations. Economic incentives are an example of intrinsic measures that may be applied to provide negative feedback.
Economic incentives that promote recycling can save resources and also provide a negative feedback loop. Recycling should be viewed as a means of stabilizing the total system—improving energy expenditure for minimizing entropy of the system. Recycling only for the sake of recycling, however, serves no purpose and can be counterproductive. Recycling systems should be designed carefully to avoid increases in entropy and consumption. In milk carton recycling, for example, energy and material used to recover and recycle milk cartons (of low entropy) increases total entropy and consumption of resources. Consequently, milk carton recycling may not be environmentally desirable.
Living things maintain homeostasis through the transfer of specific functional genetic material carried in DNA. Errors in the transmission of information in the living organic system are prevented by repair functions at various levels, such as DNA repair, cell regeneration, and individual selection. Even ultraviolet radiation, which can damage DNA, is used beneficially for repair in living organs (as in the use of radiation to treat cancerous cells). Hence, in one instance it causes damage to health, and in the other it is used benefically to improve health. Industrial activities are increasingly specialized. This trend can lead to complacency within individual sectors and impede information flow between specialized sectors. Some of the data gaps are being bridged by electronic systems that transmit huge amounts of information. However, industrial society still does not have mechanisms to deal with deterioration errors in information. The pace of innovation, the scale of industrialization, and the passage of time contribute to distortions in information. Thus, information soon becomes outdated. Mechanisms need to be developed to avoid such errors in information transfer within and among organizations (nations, corporations) and across generations.
High entropy industry sectors should be used to help maintain homeostasis. In nature, enormous sinks, like the ocean, help the Earth maintain homeostasis. The oceans are directly involved in recycling and contribute to maintaining consistency as huge sinks for heat and materials. The resource industry sector characterized by huge material flows and relatively high entropy could serve as a recycling sink for other industries that use materials and energy at smaller scales. 1
In the Gaia context, the self-organizing civilization controls its coevolution with Gaia and the biosphere. This is contrary to the common entropy limits theory (as in the “Spaceship Earth” theory). The balance needed between industrial activities and the Earth's ability to assimilate society's waste depends on industrial society acquiring energy efficiency and low entropy similar to that of living things. Industrial society must be highly efficient in using the Earth's environmental capacity it extracts. It must also increase that capacity.
Industrial Ecology and Japan's Industrial Policy
Japan's development since the 1970s has involved the substitution of more efficient and knowledge-intensive technology for energy. Faced with extreme environmental and energy constraints, Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) proposed a shift to a knowledge-intensive industrial structure that relied on technology to reduce dependence on energy and materials. This shift yielded indirect environmental benefits.2 Research and Development for this knowledge-intensive structure focused on reducing materials and energy use in industrial production, developing “limit-free energy technology” (technology-driven clean energy and fuel substitution),
and reducing energy and materials use through conservation and recycling of natural resources.
Japan's industrial policy formulation may be framed in terms of the following “principles of industry-ecology” proposed by an ecology research group organized by MITI in 1971:
Recognize system boundaries. At the extreme the system is confined to a limited area, Earth.
Recognize relationships in the system. Every organic and inorganic substance contributes to the homeostasis of the Earth's natural cycles through complex, multidimensional relationships. Sustainable change must be based on maintaining an ideal equilibrium.
Recognize redundancies in the system, Redundancies play an important role in sustaining the ideal equilibrium of a system. Human activities reduce the number of redundancies, thereby stressing the system.
Recognize dose-response (cause-effect) relationships in the system. Because the pace of human activities rapidly eliminates system redundancies and leads to deviations from equilibrium, it is important to understand the cause-and-effect relationship between human activities and the environment and to moderate those activities to maintain equilibrium.
Recognize the need for self-control. Ideal equilibrium depends on exercising control over human activities within the limits of the operating boundaries of the system.
MITI's industrial policies reflect these guidelines. Efforts are geared to recovering the ideal equilibrium of the natural ecosystem. The R&D focus is on creating environmentally friendly energy systems. More recently, policies have been introduced to increase recycling (e.g., the 1991 Law Promoting the Utilization of Recyclable Resources). The Japanese ecofactory initiative, for example, is intended to promote recycling and clean production.
As Figure 3 shows, several interrelated policies must be considered systematically in developing national strategic plans. Changes desired through one policy often require that other, related policies be considered and altered. Japanese energy policies, developed in response to the resource constraints the country faces, have had an impact on the country 's policies on international trade, research and development, environment, and transportation, and on policies affecting industrial activities, structure, and organization. MITI plays an important coordinating role in the development of these and other policies. The result has been that Japan's energy policies have worked to the country's competitive and environmental advantage.
The Japanese research group that proposed the basic principles of industry-ecology for policymaking also recommended the following research directions to promote understanding of industry-ecology interactions:
Enhance and use knowledge of natural ecologies (e.g., examine “environmental tolerances capacity” and establish a “biological index”).
Examine industrial activities that mimic the ecologies of nature and are in harmony with the environment.
Establish and simulate models based on an understanding of the interactions between natural ecological systems and man-made socioeconomic systems.
To understand and model the industry-ecology system, the ecology research group recognized the need to
Develop understanding of the total structure of the system, including constituent variables, by means of a general system macroanalysis model.
Examine in detail the logical (systems) relations between important, closely related phenomena, such as pollution, through a microanalysis of specific phenomena.
Examine socioeconomic factors and construct a desirable human environment based on detailed analysis of human behavior, actions, and physical reactions.
Industrial Ecology and U.S. Initiatives
Environmental technology development in the United States is driven primarily by programs of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the federal level and by state regulatory programs. Without EPA rules, the
market for environmental technologies would be limited to that driven by potential third-party liability lawsuits and the more obvious public health concerns (e.g., drinking water treatment). Nearly all EPA regulations are technology based though they are normally expressed as performance requirements. The performance levels necessary are normally defined by the capabilities of the best available technology (BAT). The regulated community complies by upgrading to the BAT or substituting some alternative technology that is equivalent to the BAT.3
The approach regulators most often use to protect human health and the environment is the application of pollution control technologies at the end of a pipe or a smokestack. And good progress has been made. However, as population growth and economic activity expand, so does the generation of pollutants. If conventional technologies are used, it becomes ever more costly to remove ever higher percentages of pollutants from waste and emission streams. Although more cost effective and innovative control technologies may help to contain costs and stem increases in pollutant loadings in the environment, another approach, involving pollution prevention, will generally be preferable and more effective.
Pollution prevention calls for changes in processes and products even before pollutants are generated. Since these changes are central to a company's business, they must generally be initiated and carried out by the company. While it is possible to regulate pollution prevention (e.g., to ban lead in gasoline), the EPA and the states have, for the most part, focused on technical assistance and incentive programs. Voluntary programs designed to help industry reduce emission of certain chemicals, switch to more efficient lighting, and create more energy efficient products are examples of the EPA's effort to change the current industrial ecology. Through EPA's Energy Star program, for example, several computer manufacturers have introduced energy-saving features in computers. Computers incorporating these features can carry the Energy Star logo, which may help in marketing.
Industrial Ecology Context
The context of industrial ecology is complex. If the current industrial ecology is inadequate and needs to be restructured, several issues need to be understood by industry, regulators, and the public.
First is the obvious disparity between the scale of the environmental impacts of manufacturing in even the largest private firms and the scale of the full life cycle environmental impacts of their materials, processes, and products. Firms that manufacture complex articles such as electronic systems, airplanes, or automobiles do not generally extract or create the raw materials used in such products. That function is performed by mining, extractive, and chemical companies. Therefore, manufacturers do not have access to the environmental information about life cycle stages they do not control. Moreover, they usually take no responsibility for the product after the consumer is through with it. Manufacturing firms thus do not have the data or the technical expertise to evaluate environmental impacts—and potential mitigation strategies for such impacts—occurring at critical life cycle stages such as mining or extraction, initial material processing, or material recycling and disposal. Manufacturers are, therefore, not in a position to optimize life cycle impacts of their products.
Second, a comprehensive evaluation of even available data requires difficult value judgments. For example, a comprehensive analysis of the desirability of substituting indium or bismuth alloys for lead solder in printed wiring board assembly raises difficult questions about risk distribution. Environmental impacts of increased use of bismuth and indium would fall on localities around the world where the mining and processing occur, but the benefits (less toxic lead in discarded products) would accrue primarily to localities near landfills or incinerators where the electronic items containing the alloys would be deposited. This asymmetrical geographic distribution of risks and benefits is endemic to environmental issues. It almost inevitably raises unresolved value questions and is not the kind of issue that society generally wants private firms to resolve.
Third, there is the question of “intergenerational equity,” as illustrated by the scarcity of potential substitutes for lead solder. Although estimates of reserves are usually somewhat vague, it is apparent that in broad terms bismuth and, to a greater extent, indium are rare throughout the world. Accordingly, one might question whether it is appropriate to use the limited resources of indium or bismuth in electronics applications now, when adequate substitutes exist, if doing so makes the materials essentially unrecoverable for future generations. This amounts to seeking some possible risk reduction today at the cost of consuming resources for which future generations may have no substitutes. There are no legal or equitable answers to this intergenerational equity issue yet. It is apparent, however, that it should be addressed by society as a whole rather than by individual firms motivated primarily by profit.
Fourth is the rising conflict between the changing social environmental management structures and current le-
gal structures. It is axiomatic that any economy, especially the complex modern consumer economies characteristic of the developed world, is defined in large part through the legal infrastructure that supports it. Most laws that are in place evolved before the relatively recent surge in environmental concern.
U.S. antitrust laws show how existing laws can stand in the way of environmental programs that may benefit from the collaboration of competing companies. Those laws restrict vertical integration and joint action among competitors to develop technologies and set standards. Such laws have already posed questions in the European Community as member countries such as Germany have implemented postconsumer packaging and product takeback requirements. As similar programs are contemplated in the United States, its strict antitrust standards are expected to prove problematic as companies jointly and individually seek to recover products through recyclers dedicated to recycling their products. In general, it is apparent that development of organizations controlling the entire life cycle of products and materials, and concomitant choices of environmentally preferable technologies, will increasingly raise antitrust questions and potential liabilities.
There are also consumer protection laws that discriminate against refurbished goods in commerce, and government procurement laws and regulations that restrict government purchase of such items. These statutes, intended to avoid vendor fraud, obviously serve an important purpose, but as currently structured, they may also reduce incentives to recycle and refurbish components, subassemblies, and products.
It is important to recognize that the social goals embodied in these preexisting legal structures are not somehow wrong. What is required is that these legal structures be revisited in the light of increased understanding of the environmental impacts they inadvertently foster.
Finally, there is the issue of making complex, often conflicting environmental trade-offs. Such trade-offs often must be made between two environmental impacts or when one option offers improved environmental performance in one regard while being environmentally less desirable in other ways. Energy-efficient lightbulbs filled with mercury vapor, or energy-saving superconductor devices that use thallium, which is highly toxic, pose such a dilemma. Here, social preference rather than technology is implicated, and it is governments rather than private firms that are empowered to make the policy decisions. Once made, however, the decisions will be integrated into the economy in myraid ways not easily reversible: they will be embodied in material and technology choices, capital investment, and processes and products made by private firms. If economic waste and unnecessary environmental impacts are to be avoided, the mechanism by which priorities are established among risks must be constructed carefully and thoughtfully and must be relatively stable once constructed.
Workshop discussions revealed that the energy and environmental technologies as well as R&D priorities in Japan and the United States are similar. This is despite the fact that the United States has not faced the stringent resource constraints Japan has faced. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) programs (see Appendix C) include R&D in energy conservation, renewable energy, and alternative fuels. In addition, private utilities carry out R&D through the Electric Power Research Institute on cutting-edge energy and environmental technologies as well as policy issues relevant to utilities. The likeness in R&D between the two countries is not surprising. It reflects the central role of energy in fueling industrial activities and contributing to economic growth.
The development and implementation of R&D directions and policies, however, are organized differently. In Japan, both energy and environmental technology decisions are MITI 's domain. In the United States, the Department of Energy handles energy matters, while the EPA deals with environmental pollution and remediation issues. These roles sometimes blur. The DOE has to deal with the clean-up of military waste sites, and EPA is involved in efforts to diffuse energy-efficient technologies into the economy as a way of preventing pollution. Newer environmental concerns not linked to specific points of control, such as global warming, stratospheric ozone depletion, and heavy metal dispersion, have both energyrelated and environmental ramifications involving mutliple U.S. agencies, and greater coordination and cooperation is needed.
1. The use of the cement industry for this purpose is discussed in Chapter 4.
2. This view was outlined in MITI's Vision for the 1970s, published in May 1971. See also Watanabe (1993).
3. Technology-based rules stimulate technology implementation. They do not necessarily encourage technology innovation, especially after a particular technique is considered the best available (National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, 1991). Nearly all EPA regulations are technology-based. They are defined by best available technolo-
gy (BAT) performance standards. The regulated community complies by upgrading to the BAT. EPA invests $120 million annually on technology development and evaluation—and has developed several innovative technologies in collaboration with industry.
EPA has amassed considerable expertise in controlling pollution, in a relatively short period of 20 years. Pollution control, however, occurs outside the walls of core production and manufacturing processes. Control technologies based on BAT manage pollution emerging at the end of the processes and have no impact on changing production processes or products to prevent pollution. It also appears that there are limits to controlling media-specific pollution of the air, water, and land, one at a time. As these limits are reached, EPA is working with industry to prevent pollution from a multimedia perspective (considering waste, water, air problems together instead of one at a time).
Pollution prevention calls for changes in processes and products. The goal is to change products or processes, without dictating or specifying manufacturing technologies (as occurs with technology-based pollution standards). EPA has several incentive programs in place to spur industry on to prevent pollution. Voluntary programs intended to help industry reduce emission of certain chemicals, to switch to more efficient lighting, and to create more energy-efficient products are examples of the EPA's effort to change the current industrial ecology. EPA's Energy Star program, for example, has several computer manufacturers competing to introduce energy-saving features in computers, so that the devices power down when left idle. The incentive EPA has provided is preference for these energy-efficient products in federal procurement. The result is that technology has not been dictated. The companies involved are competing to improve the energy efficiency of their products to take advantage of the potential market created by EPA.
National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology . 1991 . Permitting and Compliance Policy: Barriers to U.S. Environmental Technology Innovation . Washington, D.C. : U.S. Environmental Protection Agency .
Watanabe, C. 1993 . Energy and environmental technologies in sustainable development: A view from Japan . The Bridge . 23(Summer):8–15