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Introduction and Background

Natural ecosystems are very efficient processes in regard to energy use and the ability to reuse all of the wastes generated. Nature does this through the ability of different organisms working together, such that one's waste is another's raw material. Study of the inputs and outputs of ecosystems (material flows) quickly reveals the efficiency of the processes. Industrial Ecology is the discipline learning from and applying these natural systems concepts to industrial and other human activities. Some of the more visible typical applications of Industrial Ecology concepts include: use of material flow assessments to make decisions, eco-industrial parks, and waste exchanges.

Material flows studies provide a systematic inventory of inputs and outputs to a defined system. This information is very useful in determining options and making decisions while at the same time considering the comprehensive environmental footprint of an activity or process.

Eco-industrial parks are settings where industries are grouped such that they can exchange raw materials, waste materials, and energy among each other, thereby reducing the net inputs and outputs of the park. In essence, the eco-industrial park is an artificial "ecosystem".

Waste Exchanges are likened to "virtual eco-industrial parks" in that we see the same type of material exchanges among entities, but in this case, they are not physically located adjacent to each other. Instead, using web-based databases and brokers, agreements are made between participants to transport and exchange materials between locations. In this case clearly, distance and transportation issues will figure in assessing how practical an exchange can be.

Life Cycle Assessment:

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the scientific approach to identify and evaluate the environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of a process or product. For example, the life cycle assessment of an aluminum can could include the entire life from extraction of the aluminum ore to the disposal or recycling of the can by the consumer.

LCA information can be used to make decisions such as where in the process changes can or should be made to realize relatively greater benefits. LCA can also be integrated with life cycle costing to gather information than provides input to both environmental and economic decisions. Life cycle costing is using the same approach but identifying and evaluating costs instead of environmental impacts.

The International Organization of Standardization has developed a series of standards (ISO 14040 Series) that discuss LCA ( The standards include: Principles and Framework (ISO 14040), Goal and Scope Definition and Inventory Analysis (14041), and Impact Assessment (14042). Additional documents regarding case studies and examples are being developed. The review cycle for the standards is imminent, and there is a proposal to combine several of the documents into a more user friendly, shorter format.

Relation to Sustainability

Industrial Ecology has been called the "science of sustainability", in that it provides life cycle environmental impact and cost information to decision makers. This information can used to balance the environmental, economic, and social implications of actions.

Tools and Resources (Coming Soon)

Case Studies and Examples (Coming Soon)

Life Cycle Assessment Applications to IE (Coming Soon)

Useful Links and Other Resources