Yet this business approach, known by academics as industrial ecology, is far from widespread. While many companies -- GE, Dow Chemical, Ford, IBM -- have followed Ray Anderson's lead in looking to nature to reduce waste or streamline a particular product, few have made the conceptual leap to situating themselves within an industrial ecosystem. This reorientation is the next frontier of industrial ecology, one that requires a tweaking of the American corporate mentality.
The Danish town of Kalundborg hosts a group of businesses that stumbled onto the industrial ecosystem model. In the 1970s, the town housed an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, a coal-fired power plant, and other resource-intensive operations. As these businesses operated side by side year after year, they realized that one plant's waste was often another's fuel. The coal plant dumped huge quantities of water while the oil refinery fed equally huge amounts into its boilers. The refinery's desulfurization process produced inconvenient amounts of gypsum, which a nearby plant needed to manufacture plasterboard.
Without planning in advance or fully realizing what they were doing, Kalundborg's businesses started engaging in byproduct exchanges. The first collaborations began in the 1970s, and by 2007, participants had cut water consumption by 25 percent and were saving $12 million and exchanging 2.5 million tons of waste per year. The town of Kalundborg also benefited, replacing an oil-based heating system with steam from the power plant.
The Kalundborg network is often held up as a model eco-industrial park: A group of commonly located businesses who collaborate on environmental and resource issues.
But industrial ecologist Ernest Lowe, who pioneered the term, does not think it applies. "There was no conscious development process," he says, "just one-on-one exchanges that developed over time. No one knew this was happening, collectively." According to Lowe, whose consulting group helps companies work together to identify collaboration opportunities, collective planning is vital to successful eco-industrial parks.
One such park in Devens, Massachusetts, started out as a decommissioned military base that was so environmentally damaged that the state designated it a Superfund site. An eco-minded steering committee, however, was able to turn it around by convincing a wide range of companies to set up high-efficiency and collaborative facilities on the former brownfields. Devens now hosts state and federal agencies as well as over 75 green technology, pharmaceutical, and construction companies who participate in small-scale waste exchanges and resource collaborations. The project has created more than 3,500 jobs and helped the participating companies conserve resources and save money.
Devens was largely funded by private investment; unlike England, China, Japan, and other countries, the U.S. does not provide a federal foundation for eco-industrial projects. National attention for these kinds of projects spiked during the 1990s, when Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development latched onto the eco-industrial park concept, but it has since trailed off. Lowe says that the momentum stalled after George W. Bush entered office and defunded the Environmental Protection Agency, giving positions "to people who would just as soon abolish EPA."