The technological optimism of industry ecology is predicated on the assumption that by adopting principles exhibited by healthy ecosystems, industrial systems of consumption and production can be reconfigured for sustainability. In their seminal 1989 paper, Frosch and Gallopoulos state “Waste from one industrial process can serve as the raw materials for another, thereby reducing the impact of industry on the environment.” The feasibility of what would become known as by-product exchange or industrial symbiosis has been verified at the facility-level repeatedly in eco-industrial parks around the world, but it remains unclear the extent to which this axiom of industrial ecology vision is valid at an economy level. What is the potential for closing industrial material loops in a large industrialized economy? Can the wastes currently generated really be substituted for raw materials at scale? Do those substitutions really lead to significant environmental impact reduction? This research seeks to answer these questions in the case of the United States.
Fig. 1 Two material economy archetypes: a) linear, in which raw materials are extracted from the environment, manufactured into finished products, consumed, and finally disposed; b) cyclical, in which extractions and disposals of materials from and to the environment are reduced through strategies of reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling of wastes from both consumption and production activities.
The method used to conduct this research follows three basic steps:
1. What is the amount and composition of non-hazardous industrial waste generated in the United States?
2. What are the available substitution (recycling, re-use, or reprocessing) options available for these waste materials?
3. What are the current industrial demands for the materials identified as substitution options in 2?