Emerging Field of Industrial Ecology Focuses on Co-evolution Of Technology and Environmental Sciences in the Next Century

Technology, traditionally seen as the enemy of the environment, is likely to be a positive environmental force in the 21st century. Not only will technology help feed 10-12 billion people inhabiting the planet, but it also is likely to be central to improving the overall quality of life, according to Thomas E. Graedel, professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Graedel, who teaches industrial ecology, is an expert in helping corporations find ways to bring new products to market with the least environmental stress. “The emerging field of industrial ecology, which sometimes is termed the science and technology of sustainability, focuses on development that is sustainable over the long term,” Graedel said Feb. 13 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia.

“Industrial ecology is not merely some feel-good movement, but a vital necessity in this time of concern about pollution hazards and finite natural resources,” he said. “Indeed, it serves as the paradigm around which much industrial design and development activity centers. The word ecology implies that one should conserve and reuse resources of all kinds.”

The industrial process has four central players: the materials extractor or grower, the materials processor or manufacturer, the user and the scavenger. To the extent that each encourages recycling of materials, the industrial process evolves into a more efficient operation that has less environmental impact and more closely resembles a balanced biological ecosystem, Graedel said.

He gave several examples of ways to design materials and products that do more with less and how to recover materials through recycling. He also advocated techniques that make it possible to upgrade rather than discard products. Specifically, he recommended:

– Dematerialization, a process in which lesser amounts of materials are used to make products that perform the same functions as their predecessors. The ultimate example is the integrated circuit, Graedel said, in which packing density has increased exponentially since 1960.

– Less energy intensity, which means adopting manufacturing processes that require less energy and contribute less carbon dioxide to the global warming problem. The recent trend is toward decreased energy on the production line, with decreases of about a factor of 3 occurring over the last 30 years in a number of countries. Lower energy costs can mean higher profits.

– Mining residues, a concept that emphasizes recovering materials from old products and recycling them instead of mining them. A good example is recovering silver after photographic processing, which accounts for half of all silver used today. Technological priorities in research and development need to be redirected toward a “reuse” perspective, Graedel said.

– Upgrade, don’t discard, a philosophy in which companies are reverting to the earlier approach of making modular components that can be replaced when they wear out or become obsolete. Some laptop computer companies, for example, advertise replaceable keyboards, interchangeable screens and alternative disc drives.

– Find the need, which means making innovative design changes that meet specific needs. Graedel cited the microwave oven, which did not fill the need for a better traditional oven, but for rapid and efficient cooking. Its characteristics are almost all environmentally attractive as well: low energy use, small size and reduced materials consumption during manufacturing.

“Industrial ecology, a movement that is less than a decade old, encourages cooperation between business executives and environmental scientists during the planning, product design and customer response stages,” said Graedel, a chemical engineer. “The tools of industrial ecology include product life-cycle assessment, design for the environment and materials flow analysis. Get used to these terms because they are the business terms of the next century.”

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