Health Concern

Industrial Ecology :

Innovative Approach for Sustainability

“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. ...A system must be managed. The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organisation. We cannot afford the destructive effect of competition.”

W. Edwards Deming  
The New Economics  



















The term “Industrial Ecology” offers a framework to improve knowledge and decisions about materials use, waste reduction, and pollution prevention.
























"In the context of Industrial Ecology, we should measure the efficiency with which resources and energy are converted to useful products and by-products with metrics such as product-to-waste ratios, and circulation and loss rates."


















"Information flow between the corporates is responsible for bringing innovations to practice in securing our environmental quality. It is true otherwise also, when lack of flow of information leads to environmental disasters."





Industrial ecology began with an idea that a greater balance between the economy and ecology technically feasible and necessary if the economy is to grow.









Ecosystem, ecology, ecological equilibrium are the buzzwords for today. Thirty years ago, only select people from related fields may have been using these terms, today, even the primary level kids from Udayachal talk for hours on this subject.

Word ecology to me is a system establishing interrelation between the living and nonliving factors, their coexistence and mutual relationships. Ecology is a holistic term and is often too complex to be understood by the human mind and we truly understand it in bits and pieces. In fact, complexity of the structure of the ecosystem is directly proportional to the functional stability of that ecosystem. Therefore, scientists all over the world are concerned about the reducing biological diversity through reduction of fauna as well as natural elements like water and top soil.

To elaborate, one can talk about the difference between a plantation and a natural forest. Structurally, plantation is not at all complex and hence requires external management like irrigation, fertilisers, pest management, etc. Whereas, a natural forest does not require any external management as its structural complexity takes care of its functional stability. In this case, even if a few structures (read components) are collapsed, the functional equilibrium is still maintained for quite some time and the collapsed structures are repaired or replaced by equivalent functions. In other words, a forest will still sustain if tigers are wiped out as far as leopards are maintaining the same function. However, if leopards fail to function at the same level of tigers, there is a further lag that might lead to loss of functional stability of the forest.

What is Industrial Ecology?

Industries, also, work much on the same principles as in ecology. There are manufacturers that work as producers (plants), there are consumers in both the systems and there are decomposers in both the systems. Both the systems deal with living and non living components and there is a constant transfer of energy and matter through both the systems. In this article, I am making an attempt to equate ecology with the industry.

The idea of Industrial Ecology bears an American origin and Robert Frosch, a physicist, first used the term “industrial ecology” in a paper on “Environmentally favourable strategies for manufacturing” co-authored with Nicholas Gallopolous published in September 1989 in Scientific American. In this article, Frosch revolved around the concept of “industrial metabolism” which Robert Ayres had developed to organise thinking about the massive, systematic transformations of materials and energy in the modern economies.

The term “Industrial Ecology” offers a framework to improve knowledge and decisions about materials use, waste reduction, and pollution prevention. This term has wide applications from manufacturing, to service industries, environmentally symbiotic co-location of industries, trans-boundary movement of wastes between different nations, relationship to global environmental problems, and environmental performance measures.

Energy sector is the largest handler of materials in the economy. Current annual global emissions of carbon, our main fuel, are more than 1,000 kilograms per person. Energy also interacts with every other industry, ranging from automotives and chemicals to cosmetics and food. For these and other urgent reasons, the energy sector needs to be aggressively looking at the problems obstructing the smooth flow of the energy. At the same time, the consumer sector should also support the energy sector for efficient transactions. For Godrej and Boyce, the “Encon efforts” of HND and his team needs to be supported by every single department to bring it within the frame work of optimum utilisation of the energy.

As per some of the estimates we will be adding another 3.7 billion people in the current world population by 2025. We are already aware of impacts of industrialisation on the society, we can imagine the global scenario when we will be satisfying the needs of this additional population. We surely, would be polluting the world much more than even today. I am sure many of us would be living unto that to see it happening and perhaps suffering.

Models of biological systems and their interactions in nature are a role model for industrial systems that we design and operate. What makes the biological model attractive? Foremost is the ingenuity with which evolution has developed things to live off the bodies and wastes of one another. Also, the manner in which, the material and energy flows and cycles are maintained. However, the most pertinent question is about the efficiency. Natural ecosystems are often inconsistent in efficiency.

Performance of an economy is necessarily a public domain and needs to ensure larger benefit of the people and their environment. In the current scenario of degraded environment, industries should look at goals like optimisation of functions for the conservation of our environment. Anticipating a world with intense industrial activity, we must find ways to make large improvements in the totality of industrial interactions with the environment. As a corporate, we must see incentives to better our individual environmental performance.

Wernik IK, Ausubel JH

Show me the way:

We should first be considering the basic industries like energy sector, food sector, construction and infrastructure, transport, as well as services) that currently rely on the vast mobilisation of material resources. Fundamentally, this effort involves the search for alternatives to present systems that incorporate technologies that limit initial resource requirements and generate and recover usable waste products. Examples like zero emissions through the use of hydrogen as an energy carrier. Recently, attention has also focused on electric cars as zero-emission vehicles and the larger question of the energy and material system in which the vehicles are embedded.

To illustrate the role of Industrial Ecology in regulating the material and energy flows one should concentrate on functions rather than structures. As an example, one may not purchase an automobile but concentrates on the function of transporting passengers and goods. As a result the manufacturer does not give up prime ownership of the vehicle at any time and must reassume possession at the end of the vehicle’s useful life. This arrangement provides strong incentive to design the vehicle for extended useful life and maximum recoverable value after use. The proliferation of cheap goods with short service lives has led to a new source of municipal solid waste and significantly increased the number of devices manufactured. As an another example, apartments provided with the basic amenities can significantly reduce burden on transportation of these materials. Due to the incentive to extend product life the planned obsolescence of products could itself become obsolete as the acquisition of a physical object would be subordinate to the purchase of the function it provides.

Using Alternative Materials

Historically, whenever substitute or alternative materials have been used, new environmental challenges have replaced the old ones. The goal of minimizsing waste may be reached by using a wholly new material for a purpose rather than refining the processing of an old material. The new material should perform the function longer, be processed less wastefully, or be acquired with less waste. Widespread examples of materials substitution include switch over to ecofriendly gaseous fuel like PNG from HSD, LDO etc, metals for wood, aluminium for steel, concrete blocks for bricks and plastics for glass in food and beverage containers, using foaming equipment based on hydrocarbon route, which has zero ozone depleting potential resulting in complete phase out of Freon 11 usage from foaming operations. Many people may not agree with these principles. For instance, one may talk about the problems posed by plastics after substitution of glass for beverage bottles. However, the problem appears big because of less efficient recovery of plastics for handling and reusing.

Let me measure it…

Understanding the structure and environmental effects of industrial systems requires knowledge of their anatomy, physiology and ethology (behaviour science). Material flow studies reveal structure, and webs of economic and material relationships in the industrial system. The fate of products and wastes exiting them explains the effects on the environment. Currently much of the challenge in constructing materials flow accounts at all levels lies in the absence of organised data sets. It may be a worthwhile exercise to do Life Cycle Analysis for our products.

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) has been defined by the USEPA as a way to “evaluate the environmental effects associated with any given industrial activity from the initial gathering of raw materials from the earth until the point at which all residuals are returned to the earth. There are many challenges in this kind of analysis, however, LCA may become mandatory in future years and it would be wiser for “Environmental Leaders” among the corporations to consider apportioning some efforts in this field.

When we cannot measure a material within an industry or the components and fate of a product, our environmental knowledge is scanty. The measurements must serve their purpose of navigation toward the goal of Industrial Ecology, revealing whether a great environmental impact is growing or shrinking in the long term, whether a policy is succeeding or failing, and differentiate the trivial from the deadly. In Indian scenario, most of the corporations seem to be “afraid” of collecting and storing the data. Unless data is collected, solutions would be a far fetched reality.

In the context of Industrial Ecology, we should measure the efficiency with which resources and energy are converted to useful products and by-products with metrics such as product-to-waste ratios, and circulation and loss rates. Example can be quoted of the Tata Chemicals Limited at Mithapur. The entire area in Okhamandal area in Gujarath is water scarce. Seawater is treated to get the freshwater supply for industry and to satisfy the needs of the township. The salt gained in this process is a by-product and sold as table salt.

The material and energy flow indices need to be tracked at all levels (regional, national and global). Therefore, a lot of coordination is required to handle this issue. Unfortunately, there is a complete lack of coordination among the industries and the authorities. Industries and consortiums of industries have a greater role to play here. The indices should be devised in such a way that they provide solutions to the current technologies that are inherently problematic and promise innovations that are fundamentally environment friendly. For instance, optimising the environmental attributes of the personal automobile based on a gasoline powered internal combustion engine should not hinder the development of cleaner alternatives like electric or solar powered vehicles.

Way to the future…

Industrial Ecology demands the methodology for reusing, recovering, and recycling materials used and wastes created by the industries. Choosing the right kind of input material can ease or retard recycling. For example, use of powder quoting instead of liquid paints can decrease the generation of wastes to a great extent, making the use of liquid paints in certain processes obsolete. The paint recovery is also simpler in the former case. At Godrej, we have made a greater achievement on this front, almost at all levels.

Besides the material input and output, the stage of product assembly also offers opportunity for reducing the use of toxic materials and minimising wastes. Designing products to ease disassembly is of considerable practical importance to enable recovery. The less labour and capital equipment necessary for disassembly, the more economically attractive recovery becomes. Knockdown furniture can be sited as an example here. The nut-bolt technology is certainly a good example in reducing wastages in product assembly or disassembly. Clever design can also reduce the amount of materials needed in a product, for instance, the use of lower gauge metal sheet in the back wall of the storewels.

Waste minimisation, use of right input and output of materials and assembling them in a right manner continues with the reuse of materials. For mixtures of material the challenge for recovery lies in separation. Using humans to separate materials is both costly and inefficient. Furthermore, in some cases two materials (e.g., different plastic resins) may appear similar to the naked eye but may differ significantly in their chemical and physical properties. Automated methods for materials separation are capable of detecting such differences by exploiting disparities in physical and chemical properties to distinguish between materials. Taking advantage of differences in particle size, density, and magnetic and optical properties of materials in municipal solid waste allows secondary materials processors to separate out organics, and ferrous and non-ferrous metals from waste streams. Sensor arrays and high speed computing capability now allow for real time identification and separation of different plastic resins in mixed waste streams. However, recovery is possible only if the wastes are segregated. India will probably take another 20 years to start separating the wastes at household levels.

Obstacles and incentives

It is not enough to find smart solutions for recovering materials from wastes as we also need to identify the greater value to the wastes in the economy. Technology making recovery cheap and assuring high quality input materials needs to be followed by relative regulations and easy access to the knowledge banks. Ultimately, a ready market must appear.

As we see the complete absence of governmental existence, the markets for waste materials will ultimately rise or fall based on their economic viability. Markets are balanced on a very thin information flow and there is a complete lack of understanding for the resource that we label as “wastes”.

Do we see some light on this front? The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai is currently working on a model that would replace the unorganised small players from the dumping grounds by organised large players. The technology for segregation may come from across the borders, but we still need to identify the market that would accept these “wastes” as a resource. Examples like The Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) can be studied in this case. The CBOT which is working with several government agencies and trade associations, has begun a financial exchange for trading scrap materials. Other exchanges such as the National Materials Exchange Network (NMEN) and the Global Recycling Network (GRN) facilitate the exchange of both materials recovered from municipal waste streams and of industrial wastes. However, the facilities like NMEN or GRN are only platforms for exchange of the materials, whereas, CBOT is a financial market. Whether CBOT like schemes become financially viable or not, they may still prove to be useful in creating standards that can be emulated elsewhere.

Business and Financial

Information flow between the corporates is responsible for bringing innovations to practice in securing our environmental quality. It is true otherwise also, when lack of flow of information leads to environmental disasters. Corporates use a wide range of approaches to handle environmental matters. In some cases the environment departments are concerned exclusively with minimum regulatory compliance and the avoidance of civil liability for environmental matters. For a few, the environment plays a more strategic role in corporate decision making. Decisions made at the apex management level determine whether or not company adopts new technologies and practices that will improve their environmental performance. It is the better “evolved” corporates that integrate environmental costs into their accounting systems in such a way that they have positive impact on both short and long term environmentally responsible decisions. Efforts like EMS, TQM, High Performance Workplace, Lean Production, Triple Bottom line, Business Excellence models like CII-Exim Awards, are widespread for the same reason. Many of the efficiency enhancing practices advocated by these approaches bear strong resemblance to those of Industrial Ecology like the stress given on performance measures and improved information flows.

Regulations and legislations

Environmental regulations compel industries to appreciate the environmental dimensions of their operations. However, industries need to respond to the self regulatory structures established to protect environmental quality.

With better understanding of the effects of past regulation, industries and their lobbies could influence the authorities to explore regulatory reforms to provide greater incentive to recover materials from waste. The authorities and industrial groups can then instituionalise the efforts like Green Governance. Industries that demonstrate materials symbiosis within and between facilities needs to be then rewarded. Authorities can provide incentives for investment in capital equipment that uses secondary materials inputs, promoting manufacturer responsibility for product after their useful life (i.e. takeback legislation), encourage responsible methods of disposal, and discontinue subsidies to virgin materials producers.

Ministry of Environment and Forests, in India, has brought several regulations and legislations on material and energy flows across the sectors. However, there is always a concern that the prime motivations for these laws (or rules) are usually not environmental. Research in this area can identify cases where environmental considerations may indicate reforms that do not interfere with the otherwise desired political, social, or economic effect.

Regional Strategies

Often geographic regions provide a sensible basis for implementing Industrial Ecology. Industries tend to form spatial clusters in specific geographic regions based on factors such as access to raw materials, convenient transportation, technical expertise, and markets. This is particularly true for ‘heavy’ industries requiring large resource inputs and generating extensive waste quantities. Such industries also, need to be within an optimal distance from the customers. These industries also need a cheap transport network that could reduce their transportation cost as well as reduce the burden on the environment in the process of complicated transport challenges. It is convenient for such industries to relocate themselves rather than engaging themselves in finding loopholes in the existing regulations or circumvent the legal procedures while holding on to their non strategic locations. We need to investigate the geographic, economic, political and other factors that contribute to the development of symbiotic materials flows among industries in a region and overall regional environmental performance.

Concepts like Eco-parks may demonstrate principles of Industrial Ecology in a better way. They are industrial facilities clustered to minimise both energy and material wastes through the internal bartering and external sales of wastes. An industrial park located in Kalundborg, Denmark has established a prototype for efficient reuse of bulk materials and energy wastes among industrial facilities. The park houses a petroleum refinery, power plant, pharmaceutical plant, wallboard manufacturer, and fish farm that have established dedicated streams of processing wastes (including heat) between facilities in the park. We could look at examples around us where within the same industrial houses, or complexes there are several departments that are executing similar functions. This kind of arrangement often proves to be wasteful and uneconomical but, often remain due to several reasons, including inappropriate accounting methods.

Industrial ecology began with an idea that a greater balance between the economy and ecology technically feasible and necessary if the economy is to grow. Some awards and recognition among the other corporates and consumers may help in maintaining the environmental and social bottom-lines. However, for a superior economic growth we need to establish and implement principles of Industrial Ecology holistically.

Vivek Kulkarni

References: Industrial Ecology: Some Directions for Research, May 1997 - Pre Publication Draft

Wernik IK, Ausubel JH, programme for Human Environment, The Rockefeller University with the Vishnu Group for the Office of Energy and Environmental Systems, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory