Industrial ecology

Industrial ecology is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry into the relations between industrial systems and their natural environment. Industrial systems may be conceived on a micro- and meso level as firms or industries, or on a macro level as industrial societies. The industrial metabolism, that is, the flows of energy and materials through socio-economic structures, is seen as the major driver of environmental burdens and threats to sustainability. Technology in its function of transforming energy and materials into goods and services, and inevitably also into wastes and emissions, is seen as a key to more sustainable solutions.

The term, industrial ecology, was popularized following the publication in 1989 of a seminal article in Scientific American by Robert Frosch and Nicholas Gallopoulos. Following this event, the field developed during the 1990s and has spawned academic programs, several scholarly journals, and an international society. Industrial ecology draws on principles from thermodynamics, systems theory, and ecology. Life cycle assessment (LCA) and material flow accounting (MEFA) and environmental input-output analysis are primary tools used in the field. Building on the notion of symbiosis in nature, highly interconnected industrial networks using wastes as process inputs (industrial symbioses) should more closely mimic the parsimony of closed-loop natural systems. The most famous example is an industrial district in the town of Kalundborg, Denmark.

While in the early phase the focus was on technologies and firms and their interconnectedness, industrial ecology increasingly broadened its systemic perspective towards including production and consumption, trade and transport, infrastructure and lifestyles. By this the industrial transformation of entire economies came into view.

Further Reading

  • Ayres, R. and L. Ayres. 2002. Handbook of Industrial Ecology. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.
  • Bourg,D. and S. Erkman. 2003. Perspectives on Industrial Ecology. Sheffield, Greenleaf Publishing.
  • Frosch, R. and N. Gallopoulos. 1989. Strategies for Manufacturing. In. Scientific American, vol. 261, no 3, p 94-102.
  • Socolow, Robert H., Clinton J. Andrews, Frans Berkhout, and Valerie Thomas. 1994. Industrial Ecology and Global Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Ehrenfeld, J. (2008). Industrial ecology. Retrieved from


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