[…] if we aim to change the energetic metabolism of modern industrial societies, for example, we should be aware of the scope of the project. It will not just be a technological task: it will in the end imply profound socio- economic, historical change […] you cannot profoundly alter a system’s output (i.e. its waste and emissions) without changing also its inputs and the ways it works internally […] to be able to deal with industrial metabolism, social and natural sciences must co-operate intimately.

Fischer-Kowalski (2003: 44–45)

Industrial ecology (Graedel & Allenby, 1995), industrial symbiosis, the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach (McDonough & Braungart, 2002), and ‘The Natural Step’ (Robert, 2008) are all exploring effective pathways to apply ecological insights to our systems of production and consumption.

These approaches all aim to transform our industrial production processes from linear (open-loop) systems — based on investing capital to acquire resources that move through the production system to end up eventually as waste — into industrial processes based on circular (closed-loop) systems in which waste is ideally eliminated completely and all energy and material waste streams become inputs for other processes.

McDonough and Braungart contributed a useful distinction between industrial and biological metabolism. All material flows should remain within one of these cycles. That is the basis for creating circular economies (see Chapter 7). Figure 18 illustrates the approach.

To achieve this shift towards integrated, cyclical whole-systems design we need to transform products, and how we design and produce them, in ways that allow disused products at the end of their useful life to be disassembled into fully recyclable or up-cyclable industrial feedstock or organic feedstock.

This fundamental transformation of our industrial system is under way. It requires a whole new level of multi-stakeholder engagement in the shared understanding that our regenerative future lies with the collaborative advantage of all rather than the competitive advantage of some.

Figure 18: Resource Cycles

McDonough and Braungart ask the question: “How can humans — the people of this generation — upcycle for future generations? […] How can people love all of the children, of all species, for all time?” (2013: 49). These are culturally creative questions that invite transformative innovation towards a regenerative culture. The graphic below illustrates the ‘Cradle to Cradle Continuous Improvement Strategy’ they propose in order to implement a transformation of our industrial systems. Rather than stopping at ‘sustainable’ (0% bad) the Cradle to Cradle approach is also regenerative, aiming for 100% good.

Figure 19: The Upcycle Chart — Reproduced with permission from MBDC LLC.

Simply to recycle is not enough, if it only leads to materials finding another use in less valuable and less complex products before ultimately ending in a landfill or as waste. Up- cycling is about maintaining biological and industrial nutrients (resources) cycling through the biological and industrial metabolisms of our industrial processes so that they can be converted into higher quality or equal quality products at the end of a product’s useful life. Being able to do this successfully is a major step towards creating regenerative cultures.

Using the Cradle to Cradle framework, we can upcycle to talk about designing not just for health but for abundance, proliferation, delight. We can upcycle to talk about not how human industry can be just ‘less bad,’ but how it can be more good, an extraordinary positive in the world.

William McDonough & Michael Braungart (2013: 11)

The Cradle to Cradle upcycling approach is applying biologically inspired design in order to have a regenerative impact. It mimics how production and consumption are organized in ecosystems. The approach builds on the wider field of industrial ecology and industrial symbiosis. Graedle and Allenby (1995: 297) defined a number of goals and principles to help us phase-in the industrial ecology and symbiosis approach in an effort to redesign our industries. These goals prompt us to ask the following fundamental questions:

  • How can we ensure that every molecule that enters a manufacturing process leaves that process as part of a saleable product?
  • How can we ensure that all the energy used actually produces the desired material transformation and waste energy streams are recovered and used elsewhere?
  • How can we create an industrial system that minimizes the use of energy and materials in products, processes and services?
  • How can we move towards using abundant (renewable), non-toxic materials when designing products?
  • How can we create industries that rely on recycling streams (theirs or those of others) as the predominant (ideally exclusive) source of material and avoid raw material extraction whenever possible?
  • How can we ensure that every product and process preserves the embedded utility of the materials used (e.g. by design for disassembly and modular design)?
  • How can we facilitate a transformation that reviews all industrial landholdings or facilities developed, constructed or modified with careful attention to improving local habitats and species diversity while minimizing impacts on local, regional and global resources?
  • How can we design products so that they can serve to produce other useful products at the end of their product-life?
  • How can we ensure this approach transcends and includes all industries, involving material suppliers, manufacturers and producers, and consumers, to weave a cooperative network that minimizes packaging and enables the recycling and reuse of materials?

At a local scale, eco-industrial parks are providing practical examples of ways to find innovative answers to these questions. By locating different production processes in the same place and applying a whole-systems design approach to connecting their resource and energy flows, we can create many win-win-win solutions.

Among the economic wins are the reduction of overall raw material and energy costs, reduced waste management costs, better compliance, lower costs associated with environmental legislation, reduced costs from transportation, and economic benefits resulting from creating responsible brands for a responsible market.

The ecological benefits result from the reduced use of (virgin) raw materials and energy input through replacing imported raw materials with locally available waste streams. This in turn leads to a reduction in the waste and emissions generated by industries collaborating in the cluster.

In addition, the re-localization of production and consumption, the use of local and renewable material, and the business opportunities that are created by interconnecting different industries, all generate local employment opportunities (Saikku, 2006) and diversify and strengthen local economies. Increased participation and cooperation along the entire product life-cycle strengthens community as a further social benefit.

The design of eco-industrial parks is, for example, being promoted by the Indian Government in collaboration with the German ‘Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit’ (GIZ). A recent report on eco-industrial development in India said: “It should be noted that not only new industrial parks can capitalize on the principles of Eco Industrial Parks. Experiences in India show that even old parks with serious environmental problems can be transformed with often simple and inexpensive measures” (GIZ, 2012: 73).

The report highlighted the need for appropriate information systems and training programmes to help people apply ecological design thinking. To meet this need, the Asian Development Bank Institute has created a training manual to spread information and methodologies for the development of eco-industrial clusters (Anbumozhi et al., 2013).

Among the particularly noteworthy examples of applying biomimicry at the ecosystems level are eco-industrial parks like Kalundborg in Denmark, industrial symbiosis at Östergötland in Sweden, the ‘National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP)’ in the UK, and the ‘Green Industrial Park’ in Nandigama, India (still under development).

Marian Chertow from Yale University has reviewed and compared a number of important examples of ‘industrial symbiosis’ worldwide and concluded that “environmentally and economically desirable symbiotic exchanges are all around us and now we must shift our gaze to find and foster them” (Chertow, 2007).

Other instructive examples of eco-industrial parks include: the Tunweni Beer Brewery in Namibia (Cyclifier, 2015); ZERI, 2013); John Todd’s design for the Riverside Eco-Park in Burlington, Vermont (Todd et al., 2003); the ‘Envi Grow Eco-Industrial Park’ in the Forssa region of Finland (DCFR, 2012); and the ZERI integrated coffee production system in Western Colombia (Ask Nature, 2015d).

The whole-systems design approach of industrial ecology is a powerful way to make re-localizing food production systems more effective and less wasteful, by applying ecosystems thinking through the synergistic integration of multiple food-producing processes. We will return to this powerful strategy for transformative innovation based on closing the loops and cross-sector collaboration in the next chapter, in the section on creating circular economies.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from my book Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]


Photo by Justin in SD

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