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.
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.
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.