New Bottom Line Volume 4.23 – Industrial Ecology in Motion (3): Eco-Industrial Parks

November 21, 1995

In our continuing review of how “industrial ecology”–basing the design of industrial systems on the “design” of natural ecosystems, where waste essentially does not exist–is actually being applied in operating companies, we look this week at the “ecological industrial park”

The concept probably first came widely to attention in “Industrial Ecology: An Environmental Agenda for Industry”, a monograph by Hardin Tibbs, which told the tale of an “industrial symbiosis” in Kalundborg, Denmark, where a series of businesses evolved a rich network of waste and energy exchange. The Asnaes coal-fired electric power plant supplies steam to the Novo Nordisk pharmaceutical plant and the Statoil refinery, and waste heat to a district heating system serving 3,500 homes. The refinery removes sulfur from its natural gas, selling it to Kemira, a sulfuric acid manufacturer, resulting in a cleaner gas, in turn bought by Asnaes. Asnaes sells fly ash to a cement plant and waste gypsum to a wallboard plant, and uses still more waste heat in greenhouses and fish farms it operates. Sludge from Novo Nordisk becomes fertilizer for local agriculture, and refinery wastewater feeds the powerplant. The intricate web is more impressive as diagram than a paragraph–and it has both reduced environmental impacts and increased ROI.

Tibbs outlined several core principles for “industrial ecosystems”:

  • no waste (the output of one process becomes the input for another);
  • concentrated toxins are not stored, but synthesized as needed;
  • “elegant” cycles of materials and energy weave among the companies;
  • systems are dynamic, and information driven;
  • independent participants in coordinated action.

Later profiled in Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce (HarperBusiness), and most recently in Sim Van Der Ryn and Stuart Cowan’s Ecological Design (Island Press), Kalundborg has become the rallying point for an idea groping toward reality. And indeed that idea has fired imaginations–and development efforts–in a number of cities. In addition to the resource exchange examples featured in the last two columns, “Eco-Industrial Park” (EIP) projects are in various stages of development in several cities, including Baltimore (Maryland), Brownsville Texas, Cape Charles Virginia, Skagit County Washington, and Chattanooga Tennessee. And the effort is not confined to the US; the Japan External Trade Organization published a special issue of “New Technology Japan” focusing on the “EcoFactory”.

Van Der Ryn and Cowan suggest that “The possibilities for planned industrial ecosystems are even greater” than the industrial ecosystem that “evolved” in Kalundborg, and certainly that is the hope behind these many efforts. But the design issues are substantial (and most of the EIP work is still very conceptual). The most obvious technical issue is matching resource flows; materials flow characterization studies, sophisticated information systems should be able to handle that. The organizational and legal issues, however–management, dealing with liabilities, designing for resilience–may prove more challenging. For example, what happens to the stability of an industrial park founded on tightly integrated resource exchanges if one of the companies moves, or goes under? As Braden Allenby of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory observes, “A company operating a just-in-time system can’t afford any disruptions of supplies; the residual streams of another company might not be sufficiently stable.”

Another challenge: Most EIP development efforts are being led by public agencies or NGOs, not by operating companies. Kalundborg, in contrast, evolved “organically”, in the normal course of business, among companies and people who were neighbors. Designing from an abstract, though powerful, principle is a different matter. In natural systems–the model for industrial ecosystems, after all–design is a trial and error process, not a purposive one. Human design efforts may lack what cyberneticians call the “requisite variety” to ensure resilience.

Still the EIP is a compelling idea, intellectually satisfying and biologically resonant. The US EPA has seen enough merit in the EIP concept to support some of the planning work, and to fund A Fieldbook for Development of Eco-Industrial Parks due for release in early 1996.

Operating companies are finding the concept compelling as well. Quad Graphics, the leading color printing company in the US (approaching $1 billion in revenue) is considering an “industrial ecology park” focused around printing as the “anchor industry”, with associated facilities that could include a paper mill feeding on the vast “urban forest” of recyclable paper, a de-inking facility that derives useful products from the “waste” ink, and other related activities.

Part of the power of the eco-industrial park idea is that it is such an all-encompassing grand scheme, which, Allenby observes, can make it harder to implement. It may be more practical to present it as an incremental improvement to business as usual. After all, internal and external waste exchanges have a long history in the chemical industry.

On the other hand, there is value in a dramatic and simple idea. Chattanooga has even established Zero Emissions zoning as part of that city’s ambitious sustainable development programs (NBL 4.15). As William McDonough put it, “You can do anything you want there, as long as you emit nothing.”

Now there’s a dramatically simpler approach to environmental regulation. Are you listening, Mr. Gingrich?

(c) 1995 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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