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by Roman Balzan

Chief Marketing Officer at Alpian

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What is industrial ecology?

According to Professor Suren Erkman, from the Institute for Communication and Analysis of Science and Technology (ICAST) in Geneva, industrial ecology aims at looking at the industrial system as a whole. Industrial ecology does not address just issues of pollution and environment but considers as equally important, technologies, process economics, the inter-relationships of businesses, financing, overall government policy and the entire spectrum of issues that are involved in the management of commercial enterprises.

As such, industrial ecology can provide a conceptual framework and an important tool for the process of planning economic development, particularly at the regional level. Also, industrial ecology may offer options, which are not only effective for protecting the environment but also for optimising the use of scarce resources. Thus, industrial ecology is especially relevant in the context of developing countries, where growing populations with increasing economic aspirations should make the best use of limited resources.

Industrial ecology is especially relevant in the context of developing countries, where growing populations with increasing economic aspirations should make the best use of limited resources.

Why is industrial ecology necessary?

Before diving into the nuances of industrial ecology, it is important to first understand why it is necessary.

From material extraction to product disposal, industrial processes have put an immense strain on the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it was found that industrial pollution accounts for about 50% of the pollution in the United States of America. We don’t have to tell you that pollution – of any kind – poses serious implications to the environment and health such as global warming, acid rain, respiratory disorders and ozone layer depletion.

The aim of industrial ecology is to relieve some of the environmental stress caused by various industries. The practice pushes for industry innovation in sustainable growth and efficiency through new technology. While it is inevitable that the industry will expand and factories will continue to spring up at an exponential rate, it advocates an environmentally conscious approach to production and distribution processes.

Industrial ecology provides businesses with an incentive to be innovative to stay environmentally conscious. This affects all of us, whether we know it or not.

Where does the industry fit in the ecology?

Through the lenses of industrial ecology, corporate giants are seen as an intrinsic part of the ecology, rather than individual entities. The way these companies go about their processes is seen as direct interactions with nature, including how they utilise their waste and the by-products from their subsidiary industries. That’s where industrial ecology comes in – it seeks to optimise resources, processes and best practices with the most sustainable (and innovative) solutions.

What exactly does industrial ecology entail?

Industrial ecology is complex, involving many ecosystems ranging from purely industrial and natural ecosystems to hybrid industrial-natural ecosystems. It studies the flow of resources and energies through industrial systems. The methodologies used in ecology involve the study of resource and energy flow through industrial systems. Harnessed by policy-makers, social scientists and engineers, industrial ecology encompasses many areas – industrial management, technology and more.

Their methodologies used in industrial ecology include: sustainability concepts and tools such as material flow analysis; design for disassembly, environmentally sound technologies and dematerialisation.

After quantifying the flow of material and documenting industrial processes, industrial ecologists care about the environmental and natural impact on our resources, especially with limited natural resources and issues with the disposal of waste.

Industrial ecology approaches the field of sustainability through a “systems-based, multidisciplinary discourse that seeks to understand emergent behaviour of complex integrated human or natural systems”. Sustainability issues are examined from countless sociology, environmental, economic and even political aspects, seeking to both understand and better the way in which industrial systems such as factories function.

How do different industries interact with each other in the ecosystem?

Industries are an essential part of our ecosystem, but they interact with each other as well. Of course, the natural solution is to simply halt harmful processes that threaten the natural ecosystem. However, in a world built on resources and capital, the ecosystems have shifted. Innovation is the only “natural” solution that drives growth while inspiring sustainable design that does not drive waste, pollution or other problematic ecology behaviour.

The impact of industrial ecology

Industrial ecology is a pillar of Natural Capitalism – which seeks to reduce waste with the higher goal of eliminating it altogether, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Think about outputs from industries (which are part of the ecosystem) as nutrients. They can either nourish the entire ecosystem or spread toxicity like chemicals. Industrial ecological policies are put in place to spread Natural Capitalism. This reduces the toxicity in the environment for future generations to come. For instance, it can manifest in the elimination of non-biodegradable materials in industrial processes, which discourages rampant purchasing based on pure capital. When applied to the conservation and energy chain, corporate giants switching to “cleaner” industrial processes can have a huge impact on the global supply chain… forcing the world to be more environmentally conscious.

This can be achieved in many ways – partnerships being one of them. The 1970s saw Denmark industries being supported by waste products from other industries, especially Asnaes, the largest coal-fired power plant in the country. With technological innovations today, Denmark is set to phase out coal from its Asnaes power plants and replace it with steam, district heating and power from sustainable wood chips. These are much more sustainable sources of energy.

Done voluntarily and negotiated within the commercial space, this industrial ecology partnership also benefits corporate entities with cost savings, better public relations with the media, more environmental protection; the list goes on.

Industrial ecology provides businesses with an incentive to be innovative to stay environmentally conscious. This affects all of us, whether we know it or not.

If you would like to know more about industrial ecology in Geneva, you can access here (only in French) the synthesis of industrial ecology approaches carried out over the past fifteen years in the State of Geneva, which has been co-directed by Professor Erkman.

Note: This article is part of a series offering the audience sustainable alternatives for improving our environment, societies and the larger world.

Since its inception, sustainability lies at the core of Alpian’s vision for a better world, and we have taken steps to become a part of the solution. As an organization, we have committed to operating in a sustainable manner by adhering to the highest global standards. For instance, we have woven tangible and meaningful forms of carbon capture and sequestration into the Alpian experience. As a means to contribute positively to the environment.

Stay tuned for more updates on this front.


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About the author

Roman holds a Master’s degree in economics from the University of St. Gallen HSG. He is an experienced brand- & marketing strategist and defines himself as a “crazy-creative-thinker”. He started his career at the ‘IFJ Institute for Young Entrepreneurs / Venturelab.ch‘ as Senior Project Manager before co-founding Suxedoo.ch. He later joined Google as Programs Lead for the Employer Brand Marketing in EMEA. In 2018 he was recruited by Lime, the US-based scooter giant, supporting the launch of the company’s first European market, Switzerland, after which he led Lime’s EMEA Marketing & Brand efforts before joining Alpian.

Roman loves hiking so much that in 2009 he walked 2300km on the Camino de Santiago with his dog Nelson. He walked all the way from St. Gallen to Santiago de Compostela in Western Spain.

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