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Industrial Ecology and Sustainability

Sustainability—managing the earth and human use of its resources so as to keep human civilization going indefinitely—has become a popular and important idea. We want to manage our affairs, including industry, so as to minimize direct destruction of resources (for instance, the destruction of forests, agricultural lands and soils) by poisoning the world with pollutants or by "using up" materials. Energy sources and systems are very important, but the management of materials in both industrial and consumer activities is also a key to the avoidance of unsustainable practices. The National Academy of Engineering and a number of corporations, research groups and other private organizations have been developing concepts and operating systems to achieve more sustainable practices for the handling and use of materials. These concepts and systems build on a rapidly developing collection of knowledge and practices: life-cycle analysis, "green design" (environmentally sensitive design), knowledge about the use of materials in product designs and manufacturing processes, industrial metabolism (analysis of the flow of materials through the industrial system and into the environment), the reuse and recycling of subsystems, parts and materials, and the control and elimination of waste materials and pollution.

What is now called "industrial ecology" brings these developments together into a systems view of industry, seen by analogy with natural ecosystems as a collection of industrial organisms organized into a network through which flow energy and used and reused materials, and from which come products and services. We can study material civilization as an ecological network involving industry, consumers and the natural environment. This large-scale system view illuminates new possibilities for connections in the material and energy web, and new ways to minimize or eliminate environmentally destructive effects of human activities.

I have been involved with the development of industrial ecology since it began some years ago, stimulated by Robert U. Ayres's work in industrial metabolism, growing through a series of workshops conducted by the National Academy of Engineering, and through the work of a network of academic, industrial, non-government organization and government colleagues. (See, for example, Industrial Metabolism: Theory and Policy, Ayres, R. U., pp. 23–37, and other papers in The Greening of Industrial Ecosystems, ed. B. R. Allenby and D. J. Richards, National Academy Press, Washington, 1994, and The Industrial Green Game, ed. D. J. Richards, National Academy Press, 1997). This new field now has its own refereed professional journal: The Journal of Industrial Ecology, published by MIT Press. The journal will address a series of related topics, including: material and energy flows studies ("industrial metabolism"), dematerialization and decarbonization, life-cycle planning, design and assessment, design for the environment, extended producer responsibility ("product stewardship"), eco-industrial parks ("industrial symbiosis"), product-oriented environmental policy, and eco-efficiency.

More information about the journal can be found on the World Wide Web at Many of us hope that this growing system view of industry and environment will continue to have a useful influence on industrial practices.

Robert A. Frosch
President, Sigma Xi

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