Industrial ecology is a young science that studies industrial systems with the goal of finding ways to lessen their environmental impact. Learn how industries are using industrial ecology to reduce the use of natural resources and generate less waste.
Timmy and his classmates took a field trip to the forest. Timmy's teacher pointed out that the forest is an ecosystem that takes care of itself. The first thing Timmy's teacher pointed out was a gathering of young saplings with delicate leaves. His teacher mentioned that some of these saplings would be used as food by the animals living in the forest, while others would grow big and tall.
Those that grew would provide protection from harsh weather and wind for the creatures of the forest. They would also contribute to the life cycle by absorbing carbon dioxide and sunlight, which they would convert into energy. Any limbs lost by the trees would fall to the ground where they would break down and return nutrients to the soil, so more new saplings could grow.
Timmy's teacher explained that a forest is a sustainable ecosystem because it is an environment that is able to support itself without outside help. In this ecosystem, even waste products, such as carbon dioxide, animal droppings and fallen tree limbs, get recycled back into useful products that continue the forests' cycle of life.
On the bus ride home, Timmy's bus passed a coal-burning electric power plant and a manufacturing plant where they make drywall that is used in construction of homes. Timmy started thinking, 'wouldn't it be great if energy and manufacturing plants worked more like nature and recycled, or put to use the waste products they produce?'
Well, as it turns out, Timmy was really on to something. In fact, the emerging field of industrial ecology is looking for ways to create systems and services that imitate nature. In this lesson, we will explain what industrial ecology is and look at some examples.
Industrial Ecology is the study of industrial systems aimed at identifying and implementing strategies that reduce their environmental impact. Industries, such as manufacturing and energy plants, extract raw materials and natural resources from the earth and transform them into products and services that meet the demands of the population.
Industrial ecology was developed as a way to better understand the impact industry has on the environment. Therefore, industrial ecologists, or those who study industrial ecology, work to understand the industrial systems that are in place and find ways to use fewer natural resources and find new uses for waste materials or byproducts.
Industrial ecologists approach problems with the mindset that industrial systems can become more efficient and sustainable if the problems are looked at from all directions. Therefore, it is right to think of industrial ecology as a multidisciplinary field that combines aspects of economics, engineering, sociology, technology and environmental science.
Examples of Environmental Ecology
To better understand how industrial ecology works, let's go back to Timmy's bus ride home. We remember that along the trip, Timmy's bus passed a power plant that burned coal to generate electricity and a manufacturing plant that made drywall. The power plant used a special technology to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions into the atmosphere called flue gas desulfurization. This helped the atmosphere by keeping the emissions of the toxic gas, sulfur dioxide, under control.
However, using this technology also produced large quantities of the mineral, gypsum. Gypsum is used to make drywall. Gypsum is a waste product of the power plant, but it can be used as a raw material by the drywall manufacturing plant. By working together, the power plant and the manufacturing plant are practicing industrial ecology.
One of the most notable examples of industrial ecology is Denmark's Kalundborg Industrial Park. This is an eco-industrial park where industries exchange byproducts and energy for mutual benefit. It is comprised of a power plant, an oil refinery, a manufacturing plant, a pharmaceuticals plant and the Kalundborg municipality. By working together, the byproducts or wastes from one industry are used as a resource by one or more of the other industries.
For example, treated wastewater from the oil refinery is used by the power plant as cooling water. Excess heat produced by the power plant is used to provide heat for nearby homes and also to heat the local fish farm. And, local farmers make use of byproducts from the pharmaceutical plant, which, after some treatment, makes for an excellent fertilizer.
Goals of Industrial Ecology
One of the main goals of industrial ecology is to find new industrial systems that use fewer natural resources. This can be achieved by defining and implementing systems that reduce the consumption of raw materials, such as coal, oil and water. Another goal is to generate less waste. This is achieved when new uses are found for traditional waste products, such as gypsum, sulfur and other byproducts.
Industrial ecology works to decrease atmospheric emissions by finding ways to capture and reduce emissions of harmful gases, such as sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. And, it also works to decrease water pollution by finding uses for wastewater.
Let's review. A forest is an example of a sustainable ecosystem because it is an environment that is able to support itself without outside help. Some industries try to mimic these natural environments to lessen their environmental impact. Industrial ecology is the study of industrial systems aimed at identifying and implementing strategies that reduce their environmental impact.
One of the most notable examples of industrial ecology is Denmark's Kalundborg Industrial Park. This is an eco-industrial park where industries exchange byproducts and energy for mutual benefit. The goals of industrial ecology are to find new industrial systems that use fewer natural resources, generate less waste, decrease atmospheric emissions and decrease water pollution.
After finishing this lesson, you should recognize that industrial ecology looks to emulate the example of sustainable ecosystems, and protect the environment, by finding ways to reuse industrial waste and other by-products. You could understand a few of the main purposes of industrial ecology as well as the environmental impact of some industrial systems.