An Indigo Industrial Ecology Paper
Creating systems solutions for sustainable development through industrial ecology

Thoughts on an Industrial Ecology-Based Industrialization Strategy
By Ernest Lowe, Indigo Development

Industrial ecologists take a systems view, seeking to integrate and balance environmental, business, and economic development interests. IE provides a foundation for sustainable industrialization, not just incremental improvement in environmental management. Its objectives suggest a potential for reindustrialization in economies that have lost major components of their industrial base. These objectives also suggest a new path for developing countries.

Central objectives of an industrial ecology based development strategy are be making economies profoundly more efficient in resource use, less dependent upon non-renewable resources, and less polluting. A corollary objective is repair of past environmental damage and restoration of ecosystems. Many cases in the US and abroad indicate emerging trends in line with these objectives.

Developing countries that recognize the enormous opportunity opened by this transformation can leapfrog over the errors of past industrialization. They will have more competitive and less polluting businesses. In many cases, these businesses are necessarily local, given their role in reusing heavy flows of materials and generating renewable energy.

Presently industrialized countries, on the other hand, have a major opportunity to balance the trend toward a service/information economy and restore their eroded industrial base.

Closing the loops

". . . the global imperative to use materials more efficiently is likely to create as many new professions, companies, and industries as did the communications revolution of the past century."
                                                                                   Young & Sachs 1994

At present more than 90% of all resources move quickly through production and consumption and into landfills or the environment. A major opportunity for industrialization will be creating firms able to close the loops in this enormously wasteful system. These include recycling, reprocessing, re-refining, remanufacturing, and energy and water efficiency equipment and consulting. As this sector grows, additional opportunities will grow for the equipment manufacturers supplying it.

Many new ventures have entered business by using recycled materials as feedstocks, thus reducing the economy's dependence upon virgin materials. Present trends show increasing use of recycled materials by established manufacturers in many industries.

See our paper on a resource recovery anchored eco-industrial park.

Renewable materials

A second major objective of IE, shifting from non-renewable, synthetic materials to renewable, biologically based materials offers further economic development possibilities. At least one major transnational, Novo Nordisk, has pioneered one niche in this field (biologically based industrial enzymes).Entrepreneurial companies may often be able to commercialize new technologies more rapidly than larger firms.

Turning wastes into by-products also supports the shift to renewable resources. For instance, an ethanol fermenting facility can use food wastes as its feedstock, creating ethanol and reducing the use of non-renewable oil. It would require ca 20,000 square feet, operate 24 hours a day, and create 25-30 jobs. A bio-plastics extrusion or inject molding company could use a major California waste, almond hulls, as primary feedstock, again replacing petroleum as a source.

In many cases it will take entrepreneurial leadership to recognize the value of new renewable materials and to carve out market niches for products made from them. Business incubators and training centers can support such leadership. Two illustrations of the sort of opportunities in this field are paper from alternative feedstocks like kenaf, agricultural wastes, and hemp and consumer goods from bio-plastics and bio-polymers. Kenaf International in Raymondville, Texas is producing fourteen products, including paper and interior door panel for autos, from Kenaf, a fast growing annual crop.

Production of new capital equipment is another level of industrial opportunity opened by more efficient resource use and increased use of renewable materials. Some industries will require new processing and manufacturing equipment to reduce wastes, reprocess wastes, and to use renewable materials.

See green chemistry page.

Renewable energy

Maturing of renewable energy technologies will provide another driver for industrialization. Wind power is now cost-competitive with fossil fuel energy sources. Solar photovoltaic building components (solar roof tiles and screens for large windows) are approaching cost-competitiveness. (The first tenant for an eco-industrial park at Cape Charles Virginia is Solar Building Systems, Inc. a company manufacturing photo voltaic roof tiles.) Manufacture of energy efficient equipment is a related opportunity.


Remediation of past environmental damage is already a major sector of environmental industry in the developed world. Industrial ecology suggests that full restoration of ecosystem functioning is a necessary next step, not just cleanup of toxics. While restoration is not a classic "industrial" activity, it can be a rich source of skilled and blue collar jobs. Some examples of a trend in this area include the US Presidential Order to practice ecosystem restoration at Federal facilities, court orders for corporations to pay for restoration as a penalty for spills, and the practice of a number of utilities like PG&E in California.

While supporting new industrialization, achieving industrial ecology's objectives can also offer a foundation for rebuilding industrial base in urban de-industrialized regions such as inner cities in the US. This focus of economic development will create blue collar (entry level to skilled), office, and managerial jobs and help balance the current overemphasis upon job creation in the information/service economy.


How do the objectives of closing the loops, shifting to renewable energy and materials sources, and restoration mesh with product life-extension and the transition to service economy? With the exploration of "sustainable consumption"?

How rapidly will we automate the industries of resource efficiency? Design for disassembly, automated disassembly, etc. Would this transition generate only a temporary growth in blue collar jobs?

What would a dynamic input-output analysis show about the net economic and environmental impacts of this transition? Balance of jobs lost in sunset industries vs jobs created in sustainable industries? Overall balance between traditional manufacturing industries and the resource recovery industries?

How does the increased production of bio-materials impact agricultural land use and the basic agricultural task of feeding and clothing a growing population?

If 90%+ of our total throughput (extractive, industrial, commercial, and residential) is now wasted, what level is reasonable to target for reuse in 10 years? 20 years? 50 years? How far will we close the
loops and how soon?

Young, John & Sachs, Aaron. 1994. The Next Efficiency Revolution: Creating a Sustainable Materials Economy. World Watch Paper 121, p 41

Industrial Ecology | Eco-Industrial Parks | Sustainable Communities | Site Map
 Indigo Services  | Indigo Publications

Indigo Development      
a Center in the Sustainable Development Division of Sustainable Systems Inc.
26 Blachford Court, Oakland, California 94611
Phone: (510) 530-6521 Fax: (510) 530-7498
© 2003 Indigo Development

Last modified: June 14, 2003
expert of a dragon fruit.