Yale Honors Thomas Graedel, Pioneer in Field of Industrial Ecology

In his eighteen years at F&ES, Thomas Graedel has made Yale a global center in the emerging study of industrial ecology, and cemented his role as one of the field’s founding figures.

By Kevin Dennehy

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

In 1994, a scientist from the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey was invited to give a lecture at Yale, presumably on the subject of atmospheric chemistry. But the guest speaker that day, Thomas Graedel, decided to address another topic that he and some other industry leaders had been thinking about a lot back then.
thomas graedel yale center industrial ecology
Thomas Graedel
The topic of his lecture was “industrial ecology,” a still nascent field that explores the flow of energy and materials through industrial systems, its effects on the environment, and how economic, political, regulatory and social impacts might transform these systems.

One of the people in the audience was Jared Cohon, who at the time was dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). He was so impressed that he asked Graedel to teach a Yale course on the subject the following year. 
That invitation would have profound implications for the field of industrial ecology — which is now studied with increasing complexity in countries across the world — and for Graedel, a pioneering figure in the field who will retire in June.
Since joining F&ES as a full-time professor in 1997, Graedel has helped cement Yale as a global leader in the development and institutionalization of the field of industrial ecology, conducted seminal research, and coalesced a global community of academic, industry, and policy leaders who are tackling a wide range of environmental challenges.

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“I think most industries are starting to come along on this,” says Graedel, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Industrial Ecology at F&ES and Director of the Center for Industrial Ecology. “It’s hard to assign credit for this because it’s really a general swell that is part knowledge, part desire to get rid of the trash, and part policy. Some governments have moved faster than others and some businesses have moved faster than others. But we’ve helped.”
In fact, during a series of F&ES events celebrating Graedel’s career, including a symposium held in his honor on Thursday, colleagues and former students from around the world were unanimous in crediting Graedel for his role in the growth of industrial ecology — and as mentor and teacher to an untold number of people.
As a younger man, Tom Graedel says, he never would have predicted that his career would take the path it has. While he studied chemical engineering as an undergraduate, his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan was in astronomy.
But during the 1960s, his experience with emerging satellite technologies — and knowledge of communications systems acquired during a military tour — helped earn Graedel a position with the prestigious AT&T Bell Laboratories.
After the passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act, he was appointed to Bell’s “environmental team.” In that role, he examined how the new regulations would impact the production of critical Bell technologies, from telephones to switching machines to cables and wire. Critically, he also was forced to immerse himself in the disciplines of atmospheric chemistry and corrosion science to better understand the impacts of the environment on these same technologies.
What he has is that [rare] ability to identify an important question and to see the potential avenues of research to address it.
— Reid Lifset
Along with a few others working in industry and academia at the time, Graedel began to make observations about the interaction between economic and environmental factors that would influence his early thoughts on industrial ecology. He developed an environmental assessment matrix for AT&T products that would become a standard tool for streamlined life cycle assessments of the environmental impacts of products, processes, and facilities.
As he started to share the message of “green design” with the manufacturing side of AT&T, he found that people were receptive to the new ideas. In fact, there was an appetite for more information about how to implement them. “It occurred to me and [colleague] Brad Allenby that there was a gap to be filled. So we wrote an early textbook,” Graedel says. “It happened to be the first one in the field.”
The book, which has since been translated into several languages and remains a bible in the field, helped introduce these new concepts to a wider audience.
“There were people asking, ‘What is this field? What kind of field is it?'” remembers Marian Chertow, Associate Professor of Industrial Environmental Management at F&ES who has worked alongside Graedel since he arrived at Yale. “And that’s why the textbook was important. Because it said, if it’s in this textbook, then it is industrial ecology.” 

If the textbook was a seminal moment in the emergence of the field of industrial ecology, the establishment of the Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale, in 1998, helped secure Yale at its center, colleagues say.
“[F&ES Dean] Jerry Cohon was ready and willing to take the risk in bringing Tom here,” Chertow says. “Looking back now you might say, ‘Hiring a distinguished scientist from Bell Labs wasn’t that much of a risk,’ But it was a risk. As far as we know, it was the first class in industrial ecology. 
“And, with the establishment of the Center, Tom had the wherewithal to create a program, not just teach a class.”
During those years, in the late 1990s, the new Yale team created the Journal of Industrial Ecology (JIE) as a platform to publish research, and held the first Gordon Research Conference on Industrial Ecology, which helped create a global community. By 2001, the International Society for Industrial Ecology was established, and its first conference was held in the Netherlands.
graedel with graduates
Tom Graedel, center, with Ermelinda Harper and Jeremiah Johnson, two members of his team. He supervised both. 
Using a grant of over $1 million from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Yale center made a concerted effort to introduce industrial ecology in China, exchanging researchers, awarding student scholarships, and co-hosting a workshop at Tsinghua University in 2004 on how to teach industrial ecology which attracted some 50 scholars from 35 Chinese universities. The professors catalyzed their own robust industrial ecology community in China.
At Yale last week, Zhu Liu, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center, described the “amazing and fast-growing” state of industrial ecology in China. Liu said this influence is particularly critical since so much more of the world’s manufacturing is now occurring in developing countries like China. “So it’s quite important to inspire and guide this young generation of scholars,” he said.
A prolific researcher, Graedel has also collaborated with more than 250 authors on hundreds of papers, producing foundational work on streamlined lifecycle analysis and the cycling of materials within the industrial ecosystem.
Like most great scientists, Graedel can identify weaknesses in research, said Reid Lifset, another founding member of the Yale industrial ecology team.
“But what he also has is that much rarer ability to identify an important question and to see the potential avenues of research to address it,” said Lifset, Resident Fellow in Industrial Ecology, and Editor-in-Chief of the JIE. “It’s the ability to envision the possibility of productive work where others do not, and to see how early rudimentary results hold the seeds of significant future understanding.”
At F&ES last week, dozens of professionals from industry, government, and the academic world gathered for a symposium celebrating Graedel’s career and its impacts on the field of industrial ecology.
“Tom has made not only contributions to the development of tools, but also the development of infrastructures that helped the tools to cluster and penetrate in a broad sense and forge the greater community of industrial ecology,” said Daniel Mueller, a Professor of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology.
Anything that we produce at the university that can be useful to the world of technology or policy, we ought to pursue that.
— Reid Lifset
Many attending the symposium were former graduate students and postdoctoral fellows — including several who are now leading figures in the field — who shared memories of learning from Graedel. They spoke of his precise and eloquent explanations of even the most complex subjects. They described his emphasis on communicating research findings through compelling stories and powerful, “dazzling,” graphics that illustrate complicated concepts in simple terms.
And many recalled his commitment to students, including a willingness to help with projects and provide thoughtful answers to every single question.
“You’re the leader in this discipline, but you never make people feel intimidated,” Emily Grady ’15 M.E.M., a second-year F&ES student, told Graedel. “You really take the time to listen to what we’re thinking about, what we’re hoping for, and what our job opportunities might be. And you talk through them in a way that feels really genuine and sincere.”
During the past several years, Graedel and his Yale team have conducted a comprehensive assessment of the criticality of the planet’s metal resources in the face of rising global demand and the increasing complexity of modern products.
In their most recent paper, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they shared key findings about which materials might become more difficult to find in the coming decades — and which metals, essential in the production of modern day technologies, might simply be irreplaceable if supplies run low.
In addition to publishing the findings, Graedel has met with designers and urged them to develop techniques that will make their products easier to recycle. In Columbus, Ohio last month, he visited a meeting of materials science educators, asking them to encourage the next generation of designers to keep in mind the ultimate fate of materials after their products are no longer used. 
“Especially given my industrial background, I think anything that we produce at the university that can be useful to the world of technology or policy, we ought to pursue that,” Graedel said. “We ought to be useful as well as interesting.”
graedel celebration otis
The Yale F&ES community honors Tom Greadel on April 22.