The question "And what does Mother Nature think?" could become commonplace in boardrooms if a field of study called industrial ecology takes root. The field looks to nature for cues on how to create integrated, clean, and efficient industrial processes.
Industrial ecology studies got their start in Northern Europe in the 1980s. But with the recent launching of the International Society of Industrial Ecology, this holistic approach to industrial planning may gain popularity in the U.S. The new society, based at Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, brings together scientists, engineers, policymakers, and managers to discuss how power plants, factories, and their customers can be best organized. The guiding principle is that each player in such a cluster should use the others' byproducts or waste flows.
In the industrial district of Kalundborg, Denmark, for example, a cluster of factories exchange energy, water, and waste materials to minimize their pollution output. Waste gas from a refinery powers an electrical plant. The generating plant powers a pharmaceutical factory, which in turn pumps its fermentation sludge out to fertilize a nearby farm. This ecological arrangement not only makes the cluster of industries cleaner but also cuts their operating costs. The idea is to get industry to plan ahead "so that instead of spending to clean up afterwards, industries are spending less to do it right the first time," says Reid J. Lifset, a research scholar at the society.
By Petti Fong
Edited by Adam Aston