"Visions of World Benefit & Global Responsibility: Perspectives of McGill Students

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Industrial Ecology: Intertwining Industrial Interactions

Close your eyes and picture a bird’s eye view of the industrial revolution. Most likely you will see crowded buildings with towering stack columns spewing clouds of white smoke. You will also most likely view this old world in monotonous colors of black, white and various shades of grey. Sadly, this is not a figment of our imaginations; one must merely look at the renditions of this past to realize that this turn-mark period in humanity was actually grim and sickly. During this era, humanity completely alienated themselves from the natural environment. Humans were superior and we are able to manipulate our environment to suit our needs. After all, the world was limitless and ours to do as we wished. However, we soon learned about the dire consequences of our selfish behavior not only to the natural environment, but for the human environment itself. The toxicity of that environment was so terrible that a quote from the industrial revolution in London was: “Hell must be much like London, a smoky and populous city.” Sadly our ignorance just lead us further into the hole until the facts simply were to large to safely sweep under the carpet such as the 4000 deaths which occurred in London in 1952 due to a fog which was mixed with coal smoke. Sadly, change came not from the industrial sector, but from government when industries showed complete disregard for human health.

When the average person is asked about pollution, the first three answers that come to mind are: air, water, and soil. However, the modern definition of pollution is any pollutant which can be chemical or biological substance, thermal (heat), noise, light, and energy among others that can have a dire effect on the natural and human environment. To begin, I will refresh some of the most environmentally impacting types of pollution which can also directly affect human health. Air pollution, one of the first problems to be determined is in essence the release of chemicals like sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulates into the atmosphere. The consequences of air pollution are well noted, CFC’s lead to the thinning of the ozone layer and contributed to an increase in skin cancer and SO2 lead to acid rain which deteriorated buildings, destroyed forests and acidified lakes. Water pollution is also one of the first types of health hazards humans associated with their impact on the environment. Like air pollution, it involves dumping chemicals into bodies of water. Their mechanisms vary extensively such as seemingly innocuous materials like milk which become toxic when bacteria degrade them in the water and utilize all the oxygen in the system thus leading to death of many fish and wildlife in the given area. Others are far more simple such as heavy metals which are extremely toxic to aquatic wildlife and to human health as well. Soil contamination is also fairly well known. In essence chemicals such as oil which contaminate a site can destroy or affect the local ecosystem. Thermal pollution is also a relatively new area, which occurs when coolant water from an energy plant is immediately injected into a natural body of water at a higher temperature. This in turn causes depletion of oxygen in the area which affects sensitive aquatic organisms such as juvenile fish. Luckily, government has stepped up to the plate to place laws to protect human health and the natural environment.

In Canada, this is the duty of Environment Canada which has specific regulations such as Freshwater Water Regulations, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Despite these advances, what is the role of industry in this modern age which is so dependent on environmental awareness? Do we continue moving on creating new chemicals and products without determining the consequences of our actions? Do we simply accept the current environmental standards and just disregard any possibility of self-improvement without direction from the government? Sadly, many industries fall in this later category for they believe that it is the governments’ job to “give them guidelines” for their only concern is to make money. What many industries fail to recognize is that they too are an important part of the whole system. This idea, the interaction between the industrial system and the natural system coined by Robert Frosch and Nicolas Gallopoulos is called industrial ecology.

In the natural world, the waste of one organism is the resource of another organism. This is essentially a cyclical cycle where no waste goes unused. Sadly, current industrial activities are increasingly confrontational with ecological systems. Industrial ecology follows that an ideal industrial system is one which mimics this natural balance, where the wastes of one company is the resources of another. This ideal situation in turn results in the elimination of wastes leaving the industrial ecosystem. Although this may seem nearly impossible, there are many current tools that industries can apply to reach this goal such as cleaner production methods and design for the environment. Industrial ecology also offers important goals, organizing principles and strategies to reform industry. Although many see this as a complete change which may harm industry, industrial ecology first believes that change begins with industry optimization. One reduces energy and raw materials to produce a given good. Any businessman will understand that the fewer materials you require to make a good, the cost for the good decreases which in turn can lead to an increase in profit. The second part of industrial ecology however lies beyond the physical walls of a given company. It requires the coordination and integration of companies to form closed looped systems where the wastes of one company is the resources of another. However, is this feasible? One must merely look at Kalundborg, an industrial town in Denmark. This unique industrial symbiosis comprises of 6 companies: Asnaes Power Station, Statoil, Novo Nordisk, Gyproc, the Municipality of Kalundborg, and Bioteknisk Joren.[i] This system was first developed to minimize energy waste and to comply with the strict environmental regulations set by the government of Denmark. By each company utilizing specific wastes from another company, this unique symbiosis managed to drastically reduce wastes: 19000 tons/year of oil, 1200000 tons/year of water, and 130000 tons/year of CO2 among others.[ii] The success of this system was that waste materials were recycled, consumption of raw materials was reduced, and environmental pollutants were reduced. The Kalundborg symbiosis case shows that although successful, certain conditions must be satisfied. For example, all contracts were agreed on a bilateral basis. This experience shows that successful industrial symbiosis requires a good fit among firms and that there should be trust and a "short mental distance" among the participants. This in turn translates to openness between contracts. However, there are some limitations such as costs; investment needed to put the different material and energy exchanges and each exchange is based on a separate contract between two partners. Despite these short term limitations, the overall success has more than overcome the expenses that each individual company would incur from rising resource cost, as well as rising waste disposal/environmental stipulation costs.

The world is now at a new era, and it is time to put away the typical and traditional images of business and to find new and innovative ways to lead the way in the very important but atypical aspects of the industrial system. Companies must realize they are not separate from the human system or the environmental one; they all work together as a whole. If they work independently they risk damaging the other two systems, and if both systems are damaged, like the gears in a watch, the industrial system will fail. It is time for companies to step-up and beyond regulations and following government for in the end the most atypical move is the most advantageous move for all parties involved.

[i] “The industrial symbiosis in Kalundborg, Denmark” UNEP Environmental Management for Industrial Estates: Information and Training Resources

[ii] Mandu, Christian N. (2001) ‘Handbook of Environmentally Conscious Manufacturing’ Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, pp. 32-39

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