What is industrial ecology?
Industrial ecology is the study of systemic relationships between society, the economy, and the natural environment. It focuses on the use of technology to reduce environmental impacts and reconcile human development with environmental stewardship while recognising the importance of socioeconomic factors in achieving these goals.
Industrial ecology studies often quantify the use and cycling of materials and energy in society and their exchanges (extraction and emissions) with nature. Such analyses focus on different levels and scales, from eco-industrial parks and cities to nations and the global economy.
The term ‘industrial ecology’ derives from a recognition that economic systems (such as manufacturing processes) and ecosystems are similar. Industrial ecology draws on various concepts from ecology, including material and energy cycles, complex adaptive systems, and ecological networks. Erkman (1997) highlighted the similarities between industrial and natural ecology in their definition of the field:
“The idea is first to understand how the industrial system works, how it is regulated, and its interaction with the biosphere; then, on the basis of what we know about ecosystems, to determine how it could be restructured to make it compatible with the way natural ecosystems function.”
Industrial ecology intersects multiple disciplines, including the natural sciences, engineering, and the social sciences. It also builds on various concepts such as the Tragedy of the Commons, Spaceship Earth, and Sustainable Development. It offers a growing set of scientifically rigorous quantitative methods and approaches, and today increasingly involves applied data science and scientific programming. Methods and approaches used in industrial ecology include:
- Material flow analysis - the quantification of mass and energy flows in systems ranging from industrial plants to the global economy, including in temporally dynamic states
- Life cycle assessment - the systemic analysis of environmental flows and related impacts that arise throughout the life cycles of products and services, from raw material extraction to end-of-life disposal
- Environmentally extended input-output analysis - a method to quantify environmental footprints based on the exchanges between economic sectors, and with the environment
- Industrial symbiosis - the study of the exchange of waste as a resource among nearby industrial facilities, akin to synergistic physical relationships among biological species
- Other approaches, such as socioeconomic metabolism for national economies, urban metabolism for cities, and the analysis of important socioeconomic factors such as consumer behaviour, business models, and public policy
Industrial ecology has contributed to various ideas about economic systems that aim to improve resource efficiency, i.e. minimizing waste and maximising the services delivered by using resources. These ideas have culminated in the concept of the circular economy, which became widespread in the 2010s. Today, industrial ecology provides scientifically rigorous methodologies, tools, and approaches for understanding and applying circular economy practices.