Industrial and territorial ecology

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At the crossroads between two scientific disciplines (industrial ecology and territorial ecology), ITE initially looks at the relationship between industrial companies and analyses the interactions between humans and the biosphere.

"Applied", concrete ITE aims to initiate a move to action, i.e. to set up synergies and pooling between people involved in the economy The principles of ITE in this way apply to products, companies, sectors and areas.

An ITE initiative has four objectives (according to Suren Erkman in his 1997 book Vers une écologie industrielle (Towards industrial ecology)): recycling waste, looping cycles while minimizing waste, dematerializing products (better resource productivity) and decarbonizing energy. The aim is to reduce the dependence of systems on non-renewable elements such as phosphorus.

The recurrent analogy with the way ecosystems work has focused the first ITE actions in industry around the principle "one man's waste is another man's resources". But the scope of ITE is much broader. Whether in urban or rural areas, it seeks to integrate a cross-functional logic between the different functions in the area. ITE provides an interface between all people working in the area by setting up an intermediation system which can multiply the opportunities for cooperation.

In this way, ITE integrates industrial symbiosis and focuses on the interplay of people and local momentum necessary for projects to emerge and remain sustainable.

Operational ITE initiatives may lead to 5 broad categories of action:

•       Internal flow loops: recovery of waste, combustible materials, heat, etc.;

•       Substitution synergies: exchanging flows of materials and energy between structures. Waste, by-products, effluent and energy are substituted for commonly used flows;

•       Pooling synergies: pooling services or resources by means of structures to produce steam, for example, or collecting and processing certain waste. These practices help make rational use of resources and achieve economies of scale;

•       Sharing resources or equipment: boilers or water treatment plants, for example, can be shared in certain regulatory conditions. This also applies to "human" resources (job sharing), and assets such as meeting rooms, storage areas, etc.;

•       New, innovative activities: economic value chains can sometimes reveal shortcomings and therefore opportunities for short circuit activities (new products or services).


Conceptual diagram of industrial and territorial ecology

Without the principle of industrial ecology, flows take a linear path. For example, from the extraction of raw materials to the waste they produce after use.

As shown in the following diagram, it is possible to create synergies between the different entities at work in a sector:

This diagram can be reproduced for all types of material (energy, raw materials, water, waste, etc.) and immaterial (services, human resources, etc.) flows.


The different ways of applying ITE

Substitution synergies

Definition: In this case, waste, by-products, effluents such as industrial water, and waste energy (steam and heat) are recycled so as to replace "new" resources (natural resources, semi-finished products, etc.) in the process of the company emitting them or that of another company.

Like food chains in the environment, a substitution synergy involves replacing an incoming flow by a new outgoing flow from another company which has been poorly recovered, if at all.

Companies can reuse their waste amongst each other or with the local authorities, or even with individuals. The originality of industrial ecology is that it makes these exchanges systematic within a region.

Different flows may be considered:

  • Waste and solid by-products will change their image and status, as they represent a significant percentage of raw materials that can be used by industrial processes (called secondary raw materials).
  • Liquid effluents and process water can also be used. A flow of clean water can be replaced by a flow of liquid effluent if its physicochemical characteristics are compatible.
  • Surplus energy (steam, exhaust gases, heat) that was formerly released into the atmosphere, can be used instead of fossil fuels.
  • Fossil fuel flows may be replaced by a flow of alternative fuels (deriving from waste).

Such synergies can help to reduce procurement costs or processing costs for outgoing flows.

Environmentally speaking they can save non-renewable resources and prevent polluting emissions and waste associated with the production of new raw materials that have been replaced.

In keeping with the principles of replacement, cheap local resources will always come out on top, even if they require a change of machinery and production methods. 


Pooling synergies


Definition: In this case, purchases of raw materials and consumables are grouped together; waste and effluent collection and treatment can also be shared. Companies can thereby increase the efficiency of these operations from the economic and environmental standpoint by achieving economies of scale, by massification and by reducing transport.

When several companies consume or reject the same type of flow, it is possible to pool the supply or the treatment of these flows, making for financial and environmental savings. The pooling of needs between economic players is also a way to rationalize and ultimately reduce resource consumption and emissions.

  • Pooling inflows:

When several neighbouring companies use the same type of energy, such as steam or compressed air, it may be worthwhile pooling the production of this energy. Optimized production helps streamline procurement costs, and also, from the environmental standpoint, reduces the energy consumption of the different entities.

When they consume the same type of materials, joint procurement of raw materials, finished and semi-finished products (logistics, bulk purchasing, etc.) can be used to negotiate prices with suppliers and reduce transportation, which is costly from both economic and environmental standpoints. 

  • Pooling outflows:

Several companies with the same type of outflows (waste and effluent) can pool the collection and processing of these. Optimizing transport again makes it possible to achieve financial and environmental gains.

Grouping volumes together in some cases gives sufficient quantities for more advantageous processing such as recovery.

Pooling equipment and services


Definition: It may be to the advantage of some companies to share services or infrastructure such as pipelines, pollution control or flow recovery equipment such as shredders and composting or biogas units, storage or parking areas, meeting places, staff transport, canteens, day nurseries, inter-company caretaker services, etc.

It is clear that companies today are finding it advantageous to optimize the management of their production flows, in particular by seeking solutions in their immediate economic environment. For public entities, the goal is to move towards short economic circuits, seeking to loop material and energy flows on the scale of a region, a sector, or an industrial zone.

 So industrial ecology can be seen as a strategy for the sustainable development of regions. In this, it requires the cooperation of many economic agents who usually ignore or compete with each other. It also helps develop new relationships: for example, switching from a competitive to a cooperative and partnership system. Within this approach all those involved in the economy are to be found: institutions, local authorities, universities, associations, companies, developers, managers, consulting firms, etc. They may have several roles: financier, project leader, initiator, partner of synergies, expert, project management assistance provider, etc. In this context, structures for sharing information and experience feedback fulfil a need.

Equipment sharing is already a method for implementing the industrial ecology approach. The equipment ranges from boilers to processing units via meeting places.

 Industrial ecology also includes the sharing of human resources (shared-time jobs), but this aspect has not yet been much developed. In contrast, sharing knowledge, services and experience feedback is a cornerstone of industrial ecology and is developing through clubs or meetings between companies. The environmental and economic benefits are linked to rationalizing and economies of scale.

Creating new activities



Definition: A recent study by the Orée association underlines the fact that recovering by-products, a hitherto untapped resource, may lead to the creation of new activities, changing a company's business, particularly with the creation of the interface activities necessary for the recovery of certain by-products or by developing local sectors and job sectors, and new services related to identified common needs.

 Industrial ecology is still a recent area of investigation, opening up a new multidisciplinary scientific and technical field, at the crossroads of engineering, ecology and economy. Setting up an environmental management initiative will make it possible to incorporate the environment in the development and management of industrial zones, and meet the needs of companies with a suitable service offering. It will also promote inclusion of environmental issues within companies.

Redirecting the field of activity of a company or creating new kinds of jobs in order to loop flows, while minimizing the use of raw materials and the discharge of waste, are an integral part of an industrial ecology initiative.

Many sectors have not yet been exploited; these could increase the efficiency of companies by recovering products previously considered as waste.

Besides the reprocessing of waste, the multidisciplinary aspect of industrial ecology opens the door to many activities, especially in the field of services.

In this way, the deployment of industrial ecology represents new opportunities and new jobs.