industrial ecology Industrial Ecology is the practice of making industrial systems operate more like natural systems. This involves less wastage and associated benefits in terms of profitability and environmental improvement. However, in order for these systems to work it is essential that those industries involve are capable of beneficial interaction. This article asks whether, given the required interaction options, retrofitting of industrial ecology principles to existing industry has potential.

by Peter Garvin, Green Economy Post

Before we can discuss the potential for retrofitting, we must first establish what exactly is meant by industrial ecology.


Industrial ecology is the idea that as natural systems do not have waste, we should model our systems after these examples if we want them to be sustainable. It involves the shifting of industrial processes from open loop systems, in which resources and capital investments move through the system to become waste, to a closed loop system where wastes become inputs for new processes.

It can involve the sharing of information, services, utility, and by-product resources. However complex the system, the outcome is always intended to add value, reduce costs and improve the environment. Industrial symbiosis is a subset of industrial ecology, with a particular focus on material and energy exchange.

Physical exchange of materials, for example energy, water, and/or by-products, is the most traditional form of industrial ecology – possibly as it offers the most obvious cost savings to industrial players. It has been said that “the keys to industrial symbiosis are collaboration and the synergistic possibilities offered by geographic proximity”.


A notable example resides in a Danish industrial park in the city of Kalundborg. Here several linkages of by-products and waste heat can be found between numerous entities such as a large power plant, an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical plant, a plasterboard factory, an enzyme manufacturer, a waste company and the city itself. Surplus heat from this power plant is used to heat 3500 local homes in addition to a nearby fish farm, whose sludge is then sold as a fertilizer. Steam from the power plant is sold to Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical and enzyme manufacturer, in addition to a Statoil plant. This reuse of heat reduces the amount of thermal pollution discharged to a nearby fjord. Additionally, a by-product from the power plant’s sulfur dioxide scrubber contains gypsum, which is sold to a plasterboard manufacturer. Almost all of the manufacturer’s gypsum needs are met this way, which reduces the amount of open-pit mining needed. Furthermore, fly ash from the power plant is utilized for road building and cement production.

Another great example is the emerging concept of the Circular Economy that is being promoted in China. Although the definition of the Circular Economy has yet to be formalized, generally the focus is on strategies such as creating a circular flow of materials, and cascading energy flows. An example of this would be using waste heat from one process to run another process that requires a lower temperature. This maximizes the efficiency of energy use. The hope is that strategy such as this will create a more efficient economy with fewer pollutants and other unwanted by products.

In Canada, eco-industrial parks exist across the country and have enjoyed some success. The best known example is Burnside Park, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. With support from Dalhousie University’s Eco-Efficiency Centre, the more than 1,500 businesses have been improving their environmental performance and developing profitable partnerships.

Other usage

Eco Industrial Parks can, and often are, used as a stimulus for economic diversification in a community or region. Anchor tenants, such as bio-based product manufacturers or waste-to-energy facilities, etc., can attract complementary businesses as suppliers, scavengers/recyclers, service providers, downstream users and other businesses that could benefit from eco-industrial strategies.

Retrofitting Potential

So, having covered the basic concept, we can now discuss the potential for retrofitting industrial ecology principles to existing industry.


Is the retro fit of industrial ecology practices really a fair goal? Is it not at odds with the ideal approach of sustainable production – where transportation of goods is kept to a minimum? In my opinion the very point of industrial ecology is that by products and waste streams are utilized in the same area, to streamline and refine the process so everything works in harmony. Transferring waste across a country or even internationally is a system we already use, and an inefficient one at that. I do not believe this can be industrial ecology.


In terms of retro fitting, industrial ecology processes may be limited to placing proposed new developments beside others that produce useful products for the new business, or that could utilize the waste streams of the new development. Is this realistic? Well, the industrial symbiosis seen at Kalundborg was not created as a top-down initiative. Instead it evolved gradually. As environmental regulations became stricter, firms were motivated reduce the cost of compliance, and turn their by-products into economic products. Looking at this example it looks like retrofitting may not only be possible, but also one of the primary routes of implementation.

In this case the technique worked well, but it relied on the creation of useful by-products by neighboring industries. If this were not the case, then implementation of the theory would not be possible without restructuring the industrial park with new types of industry at the expense of existing ones.

This may be very limited in scope, particularly in developed nations given the space constraints and prices demanded by commercial real estate. It ends up coming down, at least in part, to price. Even a company with a green approach would not purchase land costing significantly more just because they may be able to utilize a waste stream (depending, of course, on the value of that stream).

So, if retrofitting is not ideal, is a more planned approach to industrial park design a better option?  The engineered design and implementation of industrial ecology systems from a macro planner’s perspective, on a relatively short time scale, actually proves quite challenging. Often, access to information on available by-products is non-existent. These by-products are considered waste and typically not traded or listed on any type of exchange. It may be the case, then, that without the initial combined plan for industrial ecology when setting out a new industrial park, it is far from a simple or exact science.


It is easy to see the potential benefits that industrial ecology offers businesses. It is therefore also easy, in my opinion, to understand just how good an idea it actually is. But, how far could the ideology and principles expand in the current world, particularly in the West where factors such as space, cost and even secrecy come into play?

© 2010, peter.garvin. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: peter.garvin (7 Articles)

I am a recent Clean Technology MSc Graduate with a keen interest in all elements of Green Business. My main areas of experience are in carbon footprinting, reduction and offsetting. I have a strong desire to extent my expertise in many directions, particularly that of sustainability management.

  • Chad Farrell


    This is one of the best articles I have ever read on Industrial Ecology. Thanks for writing it.

    Industrial Ecology used to be the norm in America a century ago. However, as mass production was invented as part of the industrial revolution, waste streams become part of the process and the multi-billion dollar waste management industry was developed. The United States also had a massive amount of resources at our disposal so having a waste stream was not an issue. However, as we have entered the 21st century more consumers and customers have seen wasteful use of some resources and they are demanding more sustainable products and services. I think we are in the beginning of a new ”industrial revolution” that includes businesses designing for sustainability and implementing zero waste initiatives.

    Over the long term, I think that eco-industrial parks will develop on a limited basis. It makes a lot of sense, but the ROI for investors and companies must be there due to the large capital investment required. In the short term, retrofitting industries can work as well – but will still require a lot of investment.

    We believe that we need to use our strengths in this country and elsewhere to develop “virtual” Industrial Ecology systems. These strengths include sophisticated logistics and information technology to connect waste and material streams for use across industries. (Much like Craiglist and eBay have done for used consumer items). As you stated, access to information is non-existent. To connect companies – logistics, confidentiality, high quality information, easy access to information, and the total cost of wasting resources (landfill costs, handling, damage to brand, etc) must be taken into account. There is huge potential for industrial ecology since companies in the US are putting approx 210 million tons of materials into landfills every year (according to the EPA). Let’s hope more companies get on board.

  • Weslynne Ashton

    Hello, I would like to add to the discussion based on the work of our research group at Yale University’s Center for Industrial Ecology.

    We have been working on the hypothesis that “industrial ecosystems” exist in abundance all over the world, in many forms, but are seldom recognized as such. Our group has ‘uncovered’ many such systems that have spontaneously “self-organized” across the US in places such as Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Florida and North Dakota; while we and other researchers have identified such clusters in different parts of the world as well – Australia, Austria, China, and India among others. Businesses in these clusters most often engage in resource sharing and byproduct reuse for reasons of economic profitability and sometimes regulatory compliance. In addition to these basic reasons, we have found that communication and trust among parties and technical feasibility of the resource synergies are critical pieces of the puzzle that must be in place. Most companies in such networks are only aware of their own activities and lack of consciousness about being a part of a larger system. If and when they become aware of the larger eco-industrial network, we have seen them launch into new activities that increase material and non-material collaborations, and increase both economic and environmental benefits. These systems are constantly changing however, just as natural systems evolve, with some partnerships fading, some companies going out of business and new companies entering. In cases where it is not possible for a single company to achieve zero waste in practice, the industrial symbiosis approach broadens the perspective such that waste might be reused by others within the system, so that the larger system produces less aggregate waste.

    Formal planning at early stages appears not to have had much success in stimulating new eco-industrial parks or developments, but there are several initiatives that have been successful at stimulating growth in the number of synergies among firms in a region, or building on existing practices to develop broader visions of sustainable industrial development. Some notable examples are the National Industrial Symbiosis Program in the United Kingdom (a government-funded initiative to facilitate byproduct synergies and other resource sharing across large geographic regions in the UK –, the Rotterdam Harbor Industrial Ecosystem project (a public-private-academic consortium that built a platform for sharing ideas about sustainable development of the region and initiating collaborative projects based on industrial ecology concepts), Eco-Industrial Solutions (a private company in Canada that works with local governments to implement eco-industrial development strategies –, South Korea’s National Eco-industrial Development Plan (a multi-stage program of activities for retrofitting eco-industrial activities into existing industrial parks and for planning new parks) and China’s National Demonstration Eco-Industrial Parks program (where government authorities provide shared utilities and recycling, and companies engage independently in the reuse of wastes with each other).

    I think both research and practice are showing that the phenomena of industrial ecology in practice are not isolated but occurring all over the world, and can be ramped up with efforts that recognize existing activities and build upon their successes.

  • Steve Harris

    The concept of industrial ecology has been around for 20 years or so now (although of course the practice has been going on in some form for a long time). This article does not introduce anything new.
    “Retro-fitting” is just jargon that refers to applying industrial ecology to existing companies as opposed to planned companies or industrial estates. In practice, industrial ecology is a lot easier to apply to an existing set of companies, and initiatives (such as NISP in the UK and Kwinana in Western Australia-probably the two best examples) have been much more successfully applied to existing companies than in planning schemes.
    Naturally it is not good to transport materials over great distances, but it is risky to be too general. Each individual case has to be considered based on its own merit. In some circumstances a life cycle assessment (or similar assessment) may show that transport of a by-product to replace raw materials is beneficial, compared to extraction (and transport) of raw materials. E.g. extraction there is far more energy involved in the extraction of raw aluminium than transport of recycled.