Industrial ecology


What is industrial ecology?

Processes are being developed to reduce the exploitation of natural resources, waste production and wastewater discharge (eco-design) or improve their treatment (eco-industries). However, part of the solution also lies in the search for organisational synergies between stakeholders, like for example industrial ecology experiments. Based on a systemic approach, industrial ecology draws inspiration from the functioning of natural ecosystems in order to recreate, on the scale of the industrial system, an organisation characterised by the optimal management of the resources and a high material and energy recycling rate.  

When compared with the numerous approaches to environmental management, industrial ecology has three specific characteristics:

  • the use of a conceptual framework referring to scientific ecology;
  • an economically realistic and socially responsible operational strategy;
  • a cooperative approach: industrial ecology requires the cooperation of many economic agents who normally have no interaction or are in competition with each other.

Conceptual framework

The industrial system and the biosphere are generally regarded as separate: factories and cities on the one hand, nature, “the environment” on the other. Industrial ecology examines the opposite hypothesis: the industrial system can be regarded as a specific form of ecosystem. After all, the manufacturing and consumption processes of goods and services consist of material, energy and information flows, just like natural ecosystems.
As with the functioning of food chains in the natural milieu, the waste and by-products generated by an activity can become a resource for another activity. Companies can reuse their production residue themselves (steam, by-products, exhaust gases, wastewater, waste, etc.) or transfer it to local authorities or even individuals, thereby optimising their processes. The image and status of waste and by-products are progressively changing as they will eventually represent a large part of the raw materials used in industrial processes. Consequently, they will become a significant commercial opportunity, given the increase in raw material prices in the long term. Sharing the requirements between economic stakeholders is also a way to envisage the rationalisation of economic circuits and eventually the reduction in the consumption of resources, waste and pollution.


An operational strategy

Nowadays, it is clearly in the businesses’ best interest to optimise the management of their production flows. For public stakeholders, one of the main ideas is to strive for short economic cycles, seeking to control material and energy flows on the scale of a territory, sector, urban area, industrial parks, etc. The analysis of the incoming and outgoing flows of all these industrial sub-systems will highlight potential synergies and also reveal development opportunities.

A cooperative approach

In concrete terms, the implementation of eco-industrial synergies can relate to:

  • the recovery / exchange of industrial flows (industrial wastewater, waste and by-products, etc.);
  • the pooling of business services (collective waste management, stormwater collection and reuse, transport, etc.);
  • the sharing of equipment (boiler, steam production, wastewater treatment unit, etc.) or resources (splitting the cost of jobs, etc.);
  • the creation of new activities (interface activities necessary for by-product recovery, development of products or services from a newly identified resource, etc.).

Business parks, a unique field of application

Industrial ecology approaches are particularly relevant on a industrial park scale, within which the proximity of economic stakeholders facilitates these synergies. Furthermore, the public stakeholders who manage these areas try to make them more attractive. In this respect, industrial ecology is perceived as a genuinely sustainable territorial development strategy. However, despite numerous achievements throughout the world, for example certain eco-industrial parks in Asia, Oceania, North America or Europe, industrial ecology remains an “emerging” domain. In France, public authorities are slow to initiate really proactive policies.

Eco-restructuring strategies


In light of the scarcity of natural resources, society must, in accordance with the principles of industrial ecology, strive for a quasi-cyclical mode of operation, characterised by limited requirements and discharge, as with mature ecosystems. To achieve this, it is necessary to reorganise the production system, notably via four major action strategies developed by Suren Erkman in his reference publication Vers une écologie industrielle (Towards industrial ecology, 1998):

Systematic waste recovery:
As with food chains in natural ecosystems, networks must be created for the use of resources and waste in industrial ecosystems, so that any residue can become a resource for another company or economic agent (for example via eco-industrial parks).


Minimise dissipation loss:
Nowadays in industrialised countries, product usage and consumption are often more polluting than the production process. Fertilisers, pesticides, tyres, varnishes, paints, solvents, etc. are products totally or partially dissipated into the environment during their normal usage. The idea is to design new products and services minimising this dissipation or making it harmless.

Dematerialise the economy:

The idea is to minimise total material (and energy) flows while guaranteeing services which are at least equivalent. Technical progress makes it possible to obtain more services with less material, in particular by manufacturing lighter objects. More generally, one of the best ways to dematerialise the economy is to optimise usage, in other words to sell the usage rather than the object (this is referred to as the functionality economy); for example, it is in the best interest of a photocopier manufacturer selling a “photocopying” service, instead of the actual machine, to ensure that their photocopier requires as little material as possible, has the longest possible functional shelf life, is easy to recycle etc.

“Decarbonise” energy:

Since the early days of the industrial revolution, carbon in the form of fossil hydrocarbons (coal, petroleum, gas) represents the core element, the vital substance irrigating all economies developing in the Western world. However, this fossil carbon is the source of countless problems: intensification of the greenhouse effect, smog, oil spills, acid rain, etc. Therefore the harmfulness of hydrocarbon consumption must be reduced (for example by recovering combustion-generated carbon dioxide) and the transition to an energy mix involving less fossil carbon must be encouraged (renewable energy, energy savings).