Policy statement

Industrial ecology

This policy statement looks at the need for the skills and knowledge of engineers and scientists to develop better processes for transforming, shaping and assembling products.

This statement considers the need for market transformation and an enabling business, regulatory and policy context to encourage and support the formation and operation of companies and networks according to industrial ecology principles.

Over recent decades, long-term global economic growth has fuelled consumerist behaviours on an unprecedented scale. Add to this the continued increase in world population and it is clear that the growth in our collective demand for manufactured goods shows no signs of abatement. If we are to continue to enjoy the benefits and pleasures of material goods on this scale, we must rethink the way we use Earth’s material resources.

Traditional patterns of production, consumption and disposal are essentially linear. They involve obtaining usable materials from natural resources, transforming these materials into components which are then assembled into products for distribution, sale or other usage, after which they are disposed of in some way. At every step a proportion of what we started with is lost, and more heat, power and water used.

To sustain standards of civilisation indefinitely, linear patterns of production and consumption have to be replaced by cyclic systems, in which ‘wastes’ and by-products of one process become inputs to others. This is called ‘industrial symbiosis’, and the study, creation and management of interdependent industrial processes based on material (and other) resource symbioses is termed ‘industrial ecology’.

Industrial ecology is a systems approach that inherently derives the maximum value from material and energy resources, where the operation of each participant or process is improved through its relationship with others.

Key recommendations

Given the urgency and severity of the situation, we advocate that industrial ecology is introduced at the earliest possible juncture. To do so, the UK would need to:

  1. Review the provision of information on, and support for, industrial ecology to ensure business support (delivered through NISP, Carbon Trust, MAS, WRAP, Envirowise and others) is prioritised to focus primarily on achieving industrial ecology outcomes and benefits rather than dealing with negative environmental outcomes of industrial activity.
  2. Revisit the instruments governing our current industrial system, including all regulations, policies, procedures, fiscal treatment, metrics and targets relevant to participants in industrial ecology systems, from a whole system perspective
    to ensure these support their establishment and operation.
  3. Educate and train all public and private sector professionals charged with the responsibility to implement waste, emissions and materials approval legislation and guidance to ensure that policy enables industrial ecology are implemented consistently. We also encourage the government to introduce a referral mechanism for areas of uncertainty to provide definitive guidance and identify perverse or contradictory circumstances.


All reports and policies

Browse all our reports, policy statements, consultation responses and presidential addresses

View all

Have a question?

Contact our press team.