Industrial Ecology

Ecological metaphor: Criticism and evolution
Definition of Industrial Ecology
Objectives and approach
Main references



The observation of natural cycles, characterized by the physical-chemical transformation of organic and inorganic compounds, together with concern for the environmental problems associated with industrial activity, suggests that inspiration could be taken from the efficiency of ecological systems. In these systems, in fact, there are no waste products, the cycles transforming resources are closed, each component of the system provides the means of sustenance for other components.
A second consideration highlighted the analogy between industrial and natural systems: both system typologies are characterized by processes of transforming resources (materials, energy), which are the object of the optimization required to resolve environmental problems.
This same analogy also highlights the essential difference between natural and economic-industrial systems at the present time: the former are cyclic systems where materials circulate and transform continuously, without generating waste, while the latter are generally linear systems where resources are used and transformed into products and waste.
Reflecting on the system of industrial production in this manner is highly effective in favoring the dissemination of a new understanding: the need to conceive models of activity in terms of Industrial Ecosystem, where the consumption of materials and energies is optimized, the production of waste is minimized and the discarded materials from a generic process become the raw materials of another process (see figure

These considerations led to the evolution of the concept of Industrial Metabolism, based on the affinity between the biosphere and the industrial system in the transformation of material resources, into that of Industrial Ecology. The latter in recent years has rapidly evolved into a systematic study, based on a holistic approach, of the processes making up the whole life cycle of artifacts, from production to retirement, i.e. from the transformation of resources to their disposal.


Ecological metaphor: Criticism and evolution

The transposition of the organizational principles of ecological systems into industrial systems underlying the concepts of Industrial Metabolism and Industrial Ecology, derives from the perception of fundamental analogies between the two system typologies. In both cases, in fact, it is possible to identify some common characteristics:

  • Cyclical structure of the subject’s life (conception, birth, development, maturity, end-of-life)

  • Functions of metabolic type (ingestion of resources, transformation, growth of systems)

  • Capacity to reuse and to recycle resources (potentially zero waste, in terms of the system)

Over the last decade these analogies have become a major focus of interest for researchers, initiating a new perspective oriented toward an effective approach to the question of sustainability in relation to industrial activities, expressly based on this kind of “ecological metaphor”.
The effective potential of this approach is however still under discussion, as evidenced by several recent critical analyses. Attention has been drawn to some profound dissimilarities between ecosystems and industrial systems, which could make the ecological metaphor misleading for a clear comprehension of the sustainability of industrial activities. These dissonances are mainly related to the economic dimension of industrial systems:

Another interesting criticism concerns the way in which, in general, Industrial Ecology proposes using the study of natural models for the planning of industrial systems: that of learning from the former to improve the latter (known as the “eco-mimicry approach”). That is, in a prescriptive way, with the object of establishing solutions and making suggestions for the modification and improvement of industrial systems based on the organizational dynamics of natural systems.
Some authors propose a substantial re-elaboration of this approach, preferring an “ecology as constraint” approach, limited to using the knowledge derived from the natural sciences and ecology to trace the boundaries that industrial activities must not cross if they are to avoid compromising the environmental equilibrium.
Although other authors do not exclude the prescriptive scope of the ecological metaphor, above all in relation to the physical dimension of systems (flows of material and energy), its scientific foundations are still the subject of debate.

Despite these critical analyses of the theoretical basis of the ecological metaphor, there is no indication that its development has been arrested. One of the most recent and particularly interesting interpretations is that based on an understanding of the organizing principles continuously developed by living systems to sustain what some authors have called the “web of life”. This reading, which gives an important contribution to the very concept of sustainable development (generalized and raised to the level of “sustainability of life”), is based on a system-oriented vision of the life of natural systems, whose evolution is governed by organizing principles. These can be identified in some fundamental principles of ecology which human societies can aspire to in the organization of their own activities in a sustainable manner.
According to this perspective, such activities can be understood in terms of complex networks, subsystems and organisms, corresponding to industrial sectors, assemblies of production activities, and single production activities and products. This trajectory provides a clearer vision of the strategy required to achieve sustainability in human activities, on the basis of some fundamental and ineluctable premises:

  • Existing systems which interpret human activities do not need to be rebuilt from zero, but rather must be remodeled to reflect natural ecosystems and the organizing principles which express their intrinsic capacity to sustain life

  • The sustainability of a system is not a static condition, but a dynamic operational process, in continuous interaction with other systems.


Definition of Industrial Ecology

Given that it is still under debate, it is not yet possible to propose an unequivocal definition of Industrial Ecology, although some proposals are beginning to emerge. Most of the definitions formulated until now do however contain common elements, with differing emphasis, which can provide an overview of the concept.

One of the first definitions formulated appropriately highlights how Industrial Ecology interprets, and aims to achieve, the condition of sustainable development based on a systems-orientated perspective: Industrial Ecology “consists of a systems view of human economic activity and its interrelationship with fundamental biological, chemical, and physical systems with the goal of establishing and maintaining the human species at levels that can be sustained indefinitely, given continued economic, cultural, and technological evolution” [Allenby, 1992].

Another well-known definition takes up essentially the same premises, and continues by clarifying how the condition of sustainability can be achieved through Industrial Ecology: “It is a system view in which one seeks to optimize the total materials cycle […] Factors to be optimized include resources, energy, and capital” [Graedel and Allenby, 1995].

Of the numerous definitions found in the literature, another is perhaps the most in tune with the point of view of the designer, since it highlights that aspect of Industrial Ecology most associated with the design activity, and applies the life cycle concept to material flows: “Industrial Ecology is a new approach to the industrial design of products and processes and the implementation of sustainable manufacturing strategies […] It seeks to optimize the total materials cycle from virgin material to finished material to component, to product, to waste products, and to ultimate disposal” [Jelinski et al., 1992].


Objectives and approach

The objectives that Industrial Ecology sets for itself can be summarized in some important points:

  • Development of conceptual structures for the understanding and evaluation of the impacts of industrial systems on the environment, and for the implementation of strategies targeted at reducing the impacts of products and processes

  • Conversion of the linear structure of industrial systems (where raw materials are usually transformed, used and dumped), to a cyclical structure (where the outgoing flows of resources are used as input by other processes of transformation)

  • Harmonization between the processes making up the life cycle of products, between different interacting life cycles, between the system of life cycles and the ecosphere

With these objectives, Industrial Ecology proposes the application of an integrated approach to the management of environmental impacts correlated to the use of all the resources in play (energy, materials) in the context of industrial ecosystems (see figure). To optimize resource use, “managers need a better understanding of the metabolism (use and transformation) of materials and energy in industrial ecosystems, better information about potential waste sources and uses, and improved mechanisms (markets, incentives, and regulatory structures) that encourage systems optimization of materials and energy use” [Frosch and Uenohara, 1994].


Main references

Allenby, B.R. and Cooper, W.E., Understanding industrial ecology from a biological systems perspective, Total Quality Environmental Management, 3(3), 343-354, 1994.

Allenby, B.R., Achieving sustainable development through industrial ecology, International Environmental Affairs, 4(1), 56-68, 1992.

Ayres, R.U., Industrial metabolism, in Technology and Environment, Ausubel, J.H. and Sladovich, H.E., Eds., National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1989, 23-49.

Ayres, R.U., On the life cycle metaphor: Where ecology and economics diverge, Ecological Economics, 48, 425-438, 2004.

Capra, F., The Web of Life, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1996.

Ehrenfeld, J., Industrial ecology: A new field or only a metaphor?, Journal of Cleaner Production, 12, 825-831, 2004.

Frosch, R.A. and Gallopoulos, N.E., Strategies for manufacturing, Scientific American, 261(3), 94-102, 1989.

Frosch, R.A. and Uenohara, M., Chairmen’s overview, in Industrial Ecology, U.S.-Japan Perspectives, Richards, D.J. and Fullerton, A.B., Eds., National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1994, 1-6.

Garner, A. and Keoleian, G.A., Industrial Ecology: An Introduction, National Pollution Prevention Center for Higher Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, 1995.

Graedel, T.E. and Allenby, B.R., Industrial Ecology, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1995.

Graedel, T.E., Allenby, B.R., and Linhart P., Implementing industrial ecology, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 12(1), 18-26, 1993.

Harte, J. et al., Business as a living system: The value of industrial ecology (A roundtable discussion), California Management Review, 43(3), 16-25, 2001.

Jelinshi, L.W. et al., Industrial ecology: Concepts and approaches, in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, Colloquium on Industrial Ecology, Washington, DC, 89(3), 1992, 793-797.

Korhonen, J., Theory of industrial ecology, Progress in Industrial Ecology, 1, 61-88, 2004b.

Seager, T.P. and Theis, T.L., A uniform definition and quantitative basis for industrial ecology, Journal of Cleaner Production, 10, 225-235, 2002.

Socolow, R.H. et al., Industrial Ecology and Global Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1994.






Closing the flows of resources


Product life cycle as an industrial ecosystem




Home | Inspiration | Concepts | Drives | Research | Network | Documents | Contact