Ecology of products studies the flows of materials that result from making, using and discarding various products and develops methods for minimizing the negative effects to the environment, such as the use of materials, pollution and production of waste.
Twenty years ago ecology of products and production was understood as a study of discrete problems concerning how to find a substitute for one or another scant raw material or "handle" away a sporadic local accumulation of waste. Today these local problems have grown in number and extent so that we now regard sustainable ecology as one of the principal and permanent requirements to all production.
The areas where industrial ecology now operates, can be grouped as follows:
In the following presentation of the theory it is arranged in conformance with the typical life cycle of an industrial product: design, manufacture, use, and recycling.
Finally the methods of research and development of ecological problems are discussed.
Design in itself has no ecological dimension, but its impact on the manufacture and use of products is immense. Decisions in the design stage restrict seriously the scope of possible changes later on. Designers should "design for the environment", that is, to consider not just the manufacture but all the later phases in the life cycle of the new product including its use and disposal.
Already the first concepts for a new product should include an examination whether there could be an alternative to fabricating a physical product, in other words whether there is a different, ecologically better way to deliver the same function to customers through a service or a product-service combination. For example, buying a car to get from home to workplace becomes unnecessary if the work can be done at home, and some products can be substituted with non material services like e-mail and the virtual functions of internet and the personal computer.
Choice of material is a prominent question where the designer has great influence when selecting the materials and components of products, including the use of reprocessed materials. Clever design can reduce the amount of materials needed in a product (dematerialization). For instance, an inherently rigid three-dimensional shape for the product can allow using lower gauge metal sheet in its construction.
Sometimes it will be possible to use a new, environmentally better material for a purpose, sometimes it is enough to refine the processing of an old material. In any case, the optimal material should perform the function longer, be processed less wastefully, or be acquired with less waste.
Later on there is a discussion on the methods of ecological development of products.
The science of industrial ecology (IE) aims at improving knowledge and decisions in the various industries about use of materials, reduction of waste, and prevention of pollution. It tries to build up comprehensive accounts of the flow of materials in the economy, descriptions of the environmental dimensions of industrial systems, means for analysis and design of environmentally good systems and products, and alternatives to disposal for wastes.
Just two decades ago, Industrial Ecology could be viewed as a discussion forum for speculative ethical questions which practical people in the industry could choose either to regard or to ignore. Today, the increasing consumption of material and energy, and the expanding pollution, have often grown into compelling imperatives which the industry cannot anymore leave without notice. Accordingly, these questions have attracted more and more research. This has gradually generated a consistent theory of industrial ecology which in turn can be used to assist the prevention of further industrial catastrophes.
On the other hand, threats and warnings are just one side of ecological knowledge. Proficiency in ecology and applying it in production can also turn into an asset in competition for an industrial enterprise. Consumers are starting to demand environmentally friendlier goods and services produced by socially responsible companies. Bankers and investors evaluate companies and make decisions, considering both environmental risks and environmental market opportunities. Consequently, companies start to discover the benefits of going beyond regulatory compliance, toward sustainability.
The upper part of the model on the right is often used as a starting point in ecological studies of manufacture, while its mirror image in the lower part is a popular model in economic research. Of course, both halves of the picture have to be taken into account in the practical management of manufacture.
Here too the purpose of research is to minimize the waste generated during product manufacture, simplify the reuse of products and their components, and minimize energy and material consumption and other negative impacts of product use. The stage of product assembly offers many opportunities for reducing the use of materials, particularly toxic ones, and minimizing wastes.
Immense amounts of metals and other raw materials are continually lost to productive use as a result of their dilution or minute concentrations in wastes. Metals can be found in rinse waters from metal finishers, stack emissions and pollution control sludge from coal fired power plants, and baghouse dusts from metal smelters among others. In a national analysis of metals concentrations in waste streams in the USA, researchers have found that metal concentrations are frequently higher in waste stream compared with those in typical ore bodies. Large amounts of valuable resources are annually discarded as a result of their being viewed as "wastes" and not as sources of raw material. It is clear that enhanced materials recovery could often not only provide environmental benefits but as well economic ones directly to the manufacturer.
A range of technical approaches exist for recovering metals from wastes including electrolytic techniques (common in hydrometallurgical processes used for primary materials) and acidic leaching (familiar to mining engineers).
The ecological quality of manufacture is often measured in either the amount of wastes per produced unit, or as productivity which is measured as the quotient:
(produced quantity) / (quantity of used material).
The appellation eco-efficiency is also sometimes used for the above quotients.
When appropriate, the energy consumption and emissions of transportation of materials and products have to be added to those of manufacture.
Life Cycle Analysis can be defined as a way to evaluate the environmental effects associated with any given industrial activity from the initial gathering of raw materials from the earth until the point at which all residuals are returned to the earth. As compared to the mere study of manufacturing, its calculations are more complicated, but in return we gain the ability to examine the overall optimum of the product and the trade-offs between the phases of its life. We can thus calculate e.g. how rewarding it will be to spend more in manufacture and get a better ecological performance during use and disposal of the product.
In life cycle analysis a particular statistic, Material Input per Service Unit (MIPS), is sometimes used. It is roughly the inverse to the productivity of material, but the difference is that it also includes the materials and energy used up during the use and discarding phases of the product. Productivity of material could be measured from the model on the right as the ratio of the quantities C to A, while MIPS would be equal to (A + B) / D.
The benefit from the product, marked as D in the diagram, must be measured with suitable service units, which have to be defined specifically for each type of product. For example, for person cars they would be equal to number of people times length of travel; for laundering machines, a kilogram of cleaned clothes. The service unit of an utensil can simply be using it once.
The advantage of calculating with MIPS is that we can evaluate not only products but also the services or benefits that these products are giving to the user. For example, instead of comparing just various models of cars, we can include in the comparison also other means of transport like bus and train. This helps us point out and evaluate new alternatives which may be radically better environmentally than the old conventional products.
When calculating material input per service unit, the following five sorts of material input have to be kept apart, because there is no means of adding them up:
The unit of measurement is always kg or ton.
In the case that it proves difficult to cut down the ecological inputs, there is another possibility to improve the ecological efficiency of a product: life extension. It means keeping a product, with all its parts and materials, in productive use for a longer lifespan, slowing the flow of materials from extraction to disposal.
The final target for an ecologically healthy industrial system is the cycling of virtually all of the materials it uses. The amount of waste to the environment should be as small as possible. This is possible only with widespread reuse of materials.
For mixtures of material the challenge for recovery lies in separation. Manual assorting of waste materials is costly and inefficient. Automated methods for materials separation are capable of identifying the various materials by exploiting disparities in physical and chemical properties. Taking advantage of differences in particle size, density, and magnetic and optical properties of materials in municipal solid waste allows automatic machines to separate out organic, and ferrous and non-ferrous metals from waste streams. Sensor arrays and high speed computing capability now allow for real time identification and separation of different plastic resins in mixed waste streams.
Designing products to ease disassembly is of considerable practical importance to enable recovery. The less labour and capital equipment necessary for disassembly, the more economically attractive recovery becomes. This goal has not been very prominent in product design or research until now, but in the future it probably will attract more interest.
One difficulty in ecological studies is that according to the ecological view almost everything in a "system" like industry is affected by a great number of factors, and it becomes difficult to keep the research project size in manageable limits. The problem to be studied, of course, dictates exactly which factors are to be included in the researcher's model, but on top of that it is better to be restrictive and delimit the study even if it means deliberately ignoring some other important factors.
For example the following topics are often disregarded or taken as given factors when studying the ecology of products:
Nevertheless, in the future it may turn out that without tackling also one or more of these "difficult" factors it will be impossible to fend off an ecological disaster, or after all it may be easier with the help of these, for example by starting to tax the use of natural resources instead of taxing work.
The problems of industrial ecology often involve great immediate economical investments and possibly greater still environmental repercussions in the future, and it is often different groups of people who get the benefits from the maneuvers and who have to bear the disadvantages or the costs. The researcher should therefore keep a clear account of the distribution of benefits and disadvantages in time and between various people, see Point of View.
Likewise, there is a great difference between various groups of people regarding the power to influence on ecological questions. Pivotal people in this respect are the designers and makers of products, the suppliers of raw materials, the managements of involved companies and their financers, because one decision from them determines at once thousands of separate cases. On the consumer side the decisions of people who select products for themselves and decide on their use concern only solitary cases.
When any of these influential people participate in a project as commissioners, financers or researchers, it becomes possible to go much nearer to practical applications, perhaps even including some concrete manouvers into the same project. In this respect we can differentiate three principally different approaches, depending on how close the relation is to the application and practice:
We shall in the following have a closer look at these three approaches of ecological study.
In the descriptive type of ecological study of industry the target is to register the present state of manufacturing, using and discarding various products, to find out which environmental damages are most frequent or grave, where and when they happen and which factors can affect them. This is the normal approach of a researcher who is interested or worried about environmental questions but who has no direct connection to the people who are designing or making the pertinent products. In older philosophy of science this approach was sometimes called "disinterested", but that word seems not quite appropriate today when the researchers, like all of us, are living under an escalating threat of ecological catastrophes.
Another reason for staying on the level of information and not proceeding directly to action can be that the relationships between important ecological variables are not yet definitely known and thus more studies on descriptive or explanatory levels are needed before it will be possible to formulate practical recommendations.
For many types of data about the ecology of industrial products there are public statistics that the researcher can use as sources, see list of www-pages at the end of this page. These statistics are collected in many countries by the government or by a public institution. Besides, there are a few international organizations like the Worldwatch Institute.
When the source material only consists of existing files, their study with the technique of Ex Post Facto Research can only clarify relationships between those variables that the existing tables contain. Quite often existing statistics do not contain all those variables that the researcher would want to study, and a questionnaire or direct empirical measurements have to be arranged.
The general principles of descriptive study are explained on the page Descriptive Theory. Ecological data are mostly quantitative, for which usable analysis methods are explained on the page Quantitative Analysis. A temporal view of development can be constructed with variables (Time Series) or with qualitative factors, see Explaining a Development; the latter method can be useful when studying changes in the behavior of consumers and in the use of products. Quite often it will be necessary to forecast the future development, either by assuming a free development without intervention or by constructing various scenarios with a few modified parameters, see Assessing and Describing Uncertainty.
Theories of design and of fabrication are those bases of knowledge that are generally used in planning these two activities. "Generally" means that these theories are applied in more than one enterprise and in the manufacture of many if not all the products of a certain type. Therefore these theories can also be used efficiently for modifying the currently prevailing products or the methods used in their fabrication. It is the task of researchers to provide such information, compress and publish it in formats that are convenient for designers. Usual formats for ecological theory of design are standards and governmental regulations.
Though ecology is a universal and essential requirement, its exact content depends on the context and can be a little different in various countries, which means that the requirements are often specified as governmental regulations. These usually stake out the allowable maximal limits for ecologically important variables of production or of products, but do not otherwise restrain the design. For example, the emissions of cars are strictly regulated in most countries.
Other usual channels of publication for design theory concerning ecology are standards, either national or international ones. They can be either compulsory or voluntary, and confirmed on various levels from international organizations to private companies. Voluntary standards are often developed as joint projects of the major manufacturers of a certain product in a country. An example of these is the system of voluntary certification of the ecological maintenance of woodlands.
When developing the instructions for future designers, the procedure explained in Preparing Design Theory can be used. The starting point is a known or felt shortcoming in the questions of ecology.
The target of economy sometimes gets mixed up in the study of ecology. Often there are alternative ways of reducing the damages, and the costs are different. When we speak of such damages that involve only temporary material losses, economic optimization can well be used. Some usual models for optimization are explained under the title Normative Study of Economy.
The forum of publication of the proposals which have been developed may need some consideration. Governmental regulations, of course, come out through their official channels, and if the project has been launched by voluntary co-operation of manufacturers, these obviously already have mutual channels of information which can transmit the results of the study. More intricate can be publishing occasional research papers so that they reach the right audience and maximize the practical outcome. This problem is discussed on the page Reporting, under the title General Normative Report.
Among all possible approaches of research, product design is the most direct and thus most effective method in making true the targets for sustainability that were enumerated earlier. Clever design and selection of raw material can help improving the sustainability of both manufacturing and using the product.
The greatest chances to radically new thinking in product design is in its initial stages: tentative product concept phase, often called "product idea" or "design driver" sketching, where it is easier to find new different ways to deliver the same benefit to the customer, for example through a new type of service or ecologically lighter product-service combination, or through a multifunctional design.
Usually most research-intensive stage in product development is the phase of detailed product concept where the largest amounts of data are processed and the requirements for the new product are enumerated. The most compelling viewpoints, such as the safety requirements, are here often placed into a separate list which contains only the obligatory requirements that the new product must meet. You might consider placing at least some requirements of sustainability on this list, too, so that they will not get mixed up with other, voluntary targets of the project which often have to be arbitrated with the help of cost-benefit analysis, for example.
In the synthetic form-finding phase of design more and more details of the product become fixed and radical changes thus become more difficult. Fruitful moments for generating ecological improvements to a draft of design could be the sessions arranged in order to activate innovation such as brainstorming. In the final stages of design the feasibility of modifying the product diminishes, but can still include, for example, using less material (lightweighting) and designing for disassembly - making things easy to take apart so they can be serviced, repaired and upgraded more easily, thus extending their useful life, not to speak of easier recycling.
August 3, 2007.
Comments to the author:
Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi