Industrial Ecology: A Coming of Age Story

Citation: Resources 130: 14 1998 Published by Resources for the Future, Washington, DC

Keywords: Industrial Ecology, Consumption

Areas of Research: Technology & Human Environment

This article was published in the Resources for the Future (Washington, D.C.) newsletter Resources. Posted with permission.

The Greek oikos, for house, fathered the siblings economics and ecology. Economics, literally, are the house rules. Ecology is the branch of biology which deals with the mutual relations between organisms and their environment. Ecology implies more the webs of natural forces and organisms, their competition and cooperation, and how they live off one another.

Industry, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “intelligent or clever working” as well as the particular branches of productive labor. Reflecting in the late 1980s on the first two hundred years of the industrial revolution, several of us began to wonder whether it might be time for a new fusion of the old siblings, economics and ecology.[1] Industry, quantitatively, had essentially solved the problem of production. Factories could readily and cheaply make masses of shoes the world might want and stamp out masses of cars like tin ducks. But the massive production also generated massive by-production. And the by-products and the products themselves consumed material and piled and diffused into larger, more widespread threats. “Waste,” a seemingly trivial offspring of early economies, now seemed prepared to impoverish or murder its parents.

Green nature appeared to have gone far in solving this problem. In nature, webs connect organisms living together and consuming each other and each other’s waste. The webs have evolved so that communities of living organisms lose little or nothing that contains available energy or useful material. Organisms evolve that make a living from any waste product with available energy or useful material.

Industrial ecology asks whether Nature can teach industry ways to go much further both in minimizing harmful waste and in maximizing the economical use of waste and also of products at the ends of their lives as inputs to other processes and industries. A group of us, including Robert Frosch, Robert Ayres, and Braden Allenby, set off under the banner of “industrial ecology” to explore whether we could do away with all waste, or at least achieve massive reductions. The banner captured attention in industry, government, and academia. The National Academy of Sciences and AT&T convened a colloquium on industrial ecology in 1991. Since then, workshops, many organized by the National Academy of Engineering, have addressed facets of industrial ecology, including its bearing in manufacturing and services industries, symbiotic co-location of industries, experiences in different nations, relationship to global environmental problems, and performance measures.

The welter of emerging ideas stimulated the US Department of Energy through Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to invite the sorting out of directions for research. During 1995-1997 a couple of dozen people participated in the process, which Iddo Wernick and I reported. Our view is that the goal of industrial ecology is to lighten the environmental impact per person and per dollar of economic activity and the role of industrial ecology is to find leverage, the opportunities for considerable improvement from practical effort. Industrial ecology can search for leverage wherever it may lie in the chain from extraction and primary production through “final” consumption, that is, “from cradle to rebirth.” Mindful of the endless re-incarnations of materials, the authors of the report refer to themselves as the “Vishnus,” for the Hindu god, the preserver.

The report discusses several means for lessening impacts, including:

  • Zero emission: chances and ways to move from leaky to looped systems, and plausible scenarios for the transition from leaks to loops, especially for energy.
  • Materials substitution: opportunities for changes in material properties to reduce environmental burdens and the time scales for improved or new materials to occupy markets.
  • Dematerialization: trends in delivering equal or more services with less stuff.
  • Decarbonization: evolution of the energy system for more service while burning less carbon, through more low-carbon fuel (natural gas) or no-carbon fuel (hydrogen) and through more efficient generation, distribution and use.
  • Functionality economy: conceiving industries anew as satisfying wants (e.g., floor coverings) rather than selling goods (e.g., carpets).
  • The report also explores methods for discovering and measuring progress, including:
  • Materials flow and balance analyses (pioneered at RFF, see accompanying article by Allen Kneese): Comprehensive accounting for industrial ecosystems at several levels (firm, sector, region) by elements (such as chlorine or cadmium) and by sectors (such as wood products or automotive).
  • Life cycle analyses of products: Only a handful, such as Styrofoam cups and diapers, have been analyzed , and we need quick, reasonably accurate ways to sketch many products as well as skills to detail the most important or subtle.
  • Indicators: Intensity-of-use, waste-to-product ratios and a suite of other metrics or compasses need to be developed and tested to guide the economy to get more out of material and leak less.

Finally, the report points to levers to achieve the goals of industrial ecology. Some levers relate to choosing materials, designing products, and recovering materials. Other levers relate to institutional barriers and incentives. For example, what are the prospects for waste markets and waste exchanges? Can accounting that tracks materials better favorably improve both the environmental performance and profitability of firms? What leverage can be gained by changes in regulation of the recovery and transport of industrial wastes or by manufacturers taking back products?

The search for leverage is underway in the US and around the world. The White House Council on Environmental Quality leads an industrial ecology interagency group soon to report on materials. The research scene is lively in Germany, the Netherlands, and a fast-growing list of other countries. The field now has a dedicated Journal of Industrial Ecology. Lucent, AT&T, and NSF award fellowships to industrial ecologists. The first Gordon Conference on industrial ecology will take place in June of 1998. In this emerging field, the simple, powerful idea that society must balance its accounts of materials and energy, which RFF nurtured in the 1970s, is coming of age.

Jesse H. Ausubel, an RFF university fellow, directs the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University. He co-authored with Iddo K. Wernick, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a guest investigator with PHE, the report Industrial Ecology: Some Directions for Research. Ausubel summarized the report in an RFF seminar in September 1997. The report is available on the PHE Web site at A list of some of the key WWW sites on industrial ecology can be found on the RFF Web site at

[1] J. H. Ausubel and H. E. Sladovich (eds.), Technology and Environment, National Academy, Washington DC, 1989.