Illustration showing interconnected industrial systems

The Center for Industrial Ecology: Pathfinders in Life Cycles and Resource Reuse

This is the first in a special series that takes an in-depth look at Yale School of the Environment’s Centers, Programs, and Initiatives. This month’s focus is on the Center for Industrial Ecology, which seeks not only to advance our understanding of the environmental impacts of production and consumption on an international scale, but also to be part of tangible solutions.

Recycling paper sounds like a no-brainer for reducing waste and impacts on climate, right? Not so fast. What are the environmental repercussions of the energy used in recycling?  Stijn van Ewijk in his postdoctoral work is looking into just that.

Yuan Yao, assistant professor of industrial ecology and sustainable systems, has created innovative processes that convert biomass, such as wood, into durable and sustainable products. With a team of students, she’s delving into the impact these products could have on forests.

Marian Chertow, professor of industrial environmental management has been working to identify clusters of companies throughout the globe that have found ways to utilize each other’s byproducts — a process known as industrial symbiosis.

Workers disassembling eltrical equipment
Centers & Programs

Center for Industrial Ecology (CIE)

Leading the way in an emerging field, the Center for Industrial Ecology focuses research, teaching, and outreach on how resources are converted to products, the pollution that comes from these processes, and opportunities to reduce resource use and pollution.

All this work is at the very heart of the Center for Industrial Ecology (CIE), which focuses on how energy, water, and materials move through economic systems and on the environment impacts that result.

The study of industrial ecology took shape at YSE in 1994 when Thomas Graedel, a scientist from Bell Labs who served on the company’s environmental advisory committee, presented a guest lecture on industrial ecology. Then Dean Jared Cohon was so impressed he asked Graedel to teach a class on it. By 1997, Graedel had joined the faculty and the Center was established in 1998 with an anonymous gift to the school. Today, there are more than 20 people affiliated with CIE, including staff, faculty, postdocs, and doctoral and master’s students.

“We have a short history and ambitious aspirations,” says Chertow, a founder and current director of the Center.

One of the key areas of focus for CIE is increasing the analytic power of a popular new framework — the circular economy. The framework draws on technical insights from industrial ecology and other fields regarding the life cycle of resources and puts an emphasis on maintaining the value of products and material resources in the economy for as long as possible, while minimizing the generation of waste.

“At the heart of the circular economy is the notion that we want to keep resources within the economy, not have a linear flow where something is made, used, and thrown out — and it's gone,’’ says Reid Lifset, a research scholar, founding member of CIE, and editor of the Journal of Industrial Ecology. “But no strategy produces universally wonderful results without negative consequences anywhere. What we need to do is figure out how to steer the development of the circular economy in a way that it generates net environmental benefits, so it is applied in the right places and not in the wrong places.’’

And with worldwide demand for goods incessantly increasing during a time of climate change, finding ways to minimize waste and reduce emissions throughout the economy is central to CIE’s research.

“I’d say the best thing industrial ecologists have done for industry so far is the development of lifecycle assessment,’’ says Chertow. “A lifecycle approach means examining something from cradle to grave — systematically capturing the impact of resource extraction, production, use and waste management with the specific intent of finding out which stages have the most environmental impact.”

For example, as the use of solar panels, batteries for electric vehicles, and digital devices grows, the need to understand the availability of key metals for those technologies has become a pressing issue.

Barbara Reck, a senior research scientist at the Center and a member of the leadership team of REMADE, which partners with industry, academia, and national labs to promote material recycling, has conducted groundbreaking work on the production, use, recycling, and disposal of metals with Graedel.

Group photo of CIE researchers

Faculty, staff, students and postdocs at CIE picnic in August 2019.

“Our group has pioneered the identification of potential bottlenecks in the supply chain of modern technology, including for the very renewable technologies that are essential in the transition to a low-carbon world,’’ Reck says.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications focused on how the use of certain specific metals can lead to unnecessary waste.

Our most recent work illustrates the importance of material design on the recyclability of metals. We explain why avoiding the use of dysprosium, samarium, vanadium, niobium, tellurium, and gallium as alloying elements would go a long way in keeping these critical elements from being lost for reuse.”

In another area of study, postdoctoral student van Ewijk’s has found that the energy used to recycle paper could offset the benefits. His research into paper production and recycling has found that while recycling requires less energy than cutting down trees to make paper, it still relies heavily on the use of fossil fuels.

“I looked at the system all the way from the generation of the waste up to the reprocessing, and recycling is good, as long as you make sure that you use renewable energy,” says van Ewijk, who recently accepted a position as assistant professor at University College London.

Yao, a faculty member of the Center, is using life-cycle assessment for innovative research into  a new process to develop sustainable products. She’s leading over $1 million in research grants that focus on understanding the economic feasibility and environmental implications of biomass-derived materials and products such as biochar, biofuels, durable wood products, and soft electronics. 

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“Our Center really provides a wonderful platform to develop a collaboration with leading scientists and engineers on the use of ecology tools. It helps inform our fundamental research, technology development, and ways to scale up our methods,’’ Yao says.

Another key focus of the Center is the benefits of industrial symbiosis. Toward that end, the Center has been working with the World Bank to launch a global platform that will provide public access to information about exchange opportunities in eco-industrial parks for waste materials.

PhD student Koichi Kanaoka is conducting research on industrial symbiosis that will allow for a new worldwide marketplace via the World Bank’s digital platform. The platform will connect clusters of companies including sites in the U.S. he’s identifying that can utilize each other’s byproducts instead of sending the materials into the waste stream.

Dario Quaranta, senior expert for finance, competitiveness, and innovation global practice for the World Bank, says the data will jump start efforts for significant waste reduction.

“I have worked with multiple companies to get done what these Yale students have done in just two months on this specific project. It’s fantastic,’’ Quaranta says. “This collaboration will open up a lot of other opportunities.’’

Innovations in sustainability and life-cycle assessment will be a key component of the Center’s work going forward as will helping companies access many of the reusable materials.

“The big story in business for at least two years is the race for a seat at the sustainability table and companies are being aggressive about it, not because of regulation, but for the survival and success of their own businesses as the threats and impacts of climate change become increasingly tangible” Chertow says.

Adds Lifset: “It’s crucial that as industrial ecologists we bring our systematic understanding of the sources and magnitude of environmental impacts, what alternatives there are, and what paths are best.”

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