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In nature, organisms feed off one another’s wastes, creating an endless, closed-loop system that recycles every particle of potentially useful material. In the United States, industry is trying to learn from nature’s example. A growing number of government agencies, environmental organizations, and corporations are collaborating to create “eco-industrial parks”-clusters of businesses that reduce pollution and save money by feeding off each other’s energy, water, and material byproducts.

The idea originated in Kalundborg, Denmark (see “A Down-to-Earth Approach to Clean Production,” TR Feb/Mar 1996). At the Kalundborg site, where a complex industrial symbiosis has evolved since the 1970s, waste heat from a coal-burning power plant provides energy for a pharmaceutical company and warms more than 50 commercial fish ponds. The plant also sells the byproducts of combustion to other park tenants for use in manufacturing wallboard and concrete. The cyclical transfer of discarded energy and materials from one industry to another saves participating companies millions of dollars annually.

Since 1993, more than 20 U.S. cities from Oakland to Trenton have initiated plans to develop similar parks, many aiming to spur economic growth in low-income areas. They are assisted by an expanding network of industrial ecology consultants, such as Yale’s Program in Industrial and Environmental Management, Cornell University’s Work and Environment Initiative, and Indigo Development, an Oakland-based private consulting company. The concept is also gathering support from both government and industry: in October, the National Science Foundation and Lucent Technologies Foundation jointly awarded 18 grants totaling $1.2 million to support industrial ecology research across the country.

While most eco-industrial parks are still on the drawing board, a handful have begun to recruit tenants and set up operations. The 500-acre Port of Cape Charles Sustainable Technologies Industrial Park in Cape Charles, Va., the first of its kind to break ground in the United States, was designated by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1994 as one of four demonstration projects. The park opened in October 1996 with two anchor businesses. Four more tenants are lined up, and park organizers plan to open a multitenant building by the end of 1998. According to site manager Timothy Hayes, their aim is to attract companies that use “green” manufacturing technologies, creating an infrastructure that will allow tenants to reuse water, plastics, energy, and agricultural wastes. “Our goal is to set up an environment that facilitates these exchanges. Only the companies can make it happen,” Hayes stresses.

Recognizing that many companies, even those whose managers are sympathetic to the idea of reducing waste, may be unwilling to relocate to an eco-industrial site, a second demonstration project is taking a regional approach. The 2200-acre Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park based in Fairfield, Md., near Baltimore, has established waste exchanges involving 160 companies both within and beyond the park borders. Rather than seeking out companies that already practice green manufacturing, explains site manager Michael Palumbo, the goal is to encourage businesses to make their practices more environmentally friendly.

Drawing on information from a Northeast regional waste-exchange network, Fairfield’s managers identify high-value byproducts and contact companies that can pool these byproducts into batches large enough to sell. For example, low-grade oil runoff from storage and transport facilities is sold to asphalt producers or recycled for commercial use. Palumbo estimates that this runoff is worth $30 million annually. Companies at Fairfield are also testing the conversion of a nutrient byproduct into fertilizer pellets. Although the details are confidential, Palumbo says that one participating company produces 55 tons of the material per day. Currently, the company pays $1.75 million per year to dispose of it; the bulk of the money is spent on transporting it to landfills. By turning the byproduct into saleable fertilizer, “you’re reducing your cost and replacing it with a revenue stream,” he notes.

Perhaps the most intriguing option, however, is to bypass the concept of a site altogether and establish a “virtual” eco-industrial park-an approach now being pursued by a third demonstration project, the Brownsville-Matamoros Eco-Industrial Park in Brownsville, Tex. Although it entails higher transportation costs, this strategy avoids expensive land purchases, complex tenant interdependencies, and difficult relocations; as a result this approach may be easier to replicate. Using a computer model and database developed by the Bechtel Group, Inc., park planner Richard Luna is targeting about 30 companies within a 15-mile radius that could profitably participate in byproduct exchanges. “The main materials flows we’ve identified are cardboard, plastics, automotive products, oil, and solvents,” he says.

“Companies don’t realize that they have things that are marketable,” notes John Ehrenfeld, director of the Technology, Business, and Environment Program at MIT. Advocates of eco-industrial parks hope that the potential economic benefits will lure more companies to participate. As Nicholas Gertler, an independent consultant on eco-park development, puts it, “Park planners can create a nice nest, but they need the birds.”

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