By Andrew Hodgkinson, CH2M HILL Senior Principal Technologist, Global Water Sustainability, Melbourne, Australia
Industrial (and urban) ecology is the integrated and optimised management of material, water and energy flows in all forms throughout an industrial and/or urban system to provide a sustainable basis for all human activities. As in natural ecologies, in a developed industrial and urban ecology, everything is integrated, nothing is wasted, and all resources (water, energy, materials, labour, etc.) are used with optimum efficiency, a necessary requirement for sustainability.
Exchanges of water, wastewater, high purity water, boiler feed, steam and even ice (all forms of water) are all typical trades in a mature industrial ecology. Similarly, the interchange of organics, in a wide variety of forms including solvents, foods, wastes, oils, solids, fibres, sludges etc are also typical aspects of a mature ecology. A vital feature of a mature ecology is the optimised storage and transport of water, organics, energy, and everything else that contributes to the ecology.
Another critical feature of any mature ecology is good governance. In fact, without good governance to ensure fair trading rules underpin the entire venture, it is unlikely that complex ecologies could develop. This is because unlike a truly natural ecology, such as a tropical rainforest or “jungle” where Darwinian economics always prevail, industrial and urban ecologies must be at least slightly “socialist.” Not in a political context, but rather that in terms of materials and energy integration there must be some element of altruistic collaboration for the greater good. This requires rules and governance that, in particular, place fair limits and pricing upon the rates of consumption and materials exchange. Without this framework the ecology will fail, or collapse, as Jared Diamond[i] might say. Modelling, especially models that entail dynamic simulation, can be a highly potent tool in the hands of those who wish to plan and manage such schemes.
As the world strives to cope with increasingly constrained water and energy supplies, resource shortages and environmental impact concerns, planners and engineers are now seeking to create planned urban and industrial ecologies, to obtain the savings and profits implicit when highly efficient systems are successfully established.
In Australia, the Gippsland Water Factory (GWF) is a good example of a recently developed industrial and urban ecology retrofitted into an existing regional resource system. Local communities depend on the local paper mill for jobs, and provide domestic sewage that after purification by GWF is supplied to the paper mill for use as process water. The waste nutrients from the local communities and one major dairy factory are also utilised at GWF to help process the wastewater from the paper mill. This includes the generation of electricity from waste treatment by-products and also from a micro-hydro plant that operates on another part of the water supply to the paper mill. The biosolids produced as a result of the GWF treatment system are then composted and used as fertiliser for a major beef farm (largest beef herd in Victoria), which provides food for the local community and also for export.
Overall, the GWF, which was developed by Central Gippsland Regional Water Authority, with some Victorian Government funding and engineering by Gippsland Water Factory Alliance (led by CH2M HILL) demonstrates an integrated and industrial and urban ecology that provides many benefits to the local community and the environment. The GWF also welcomes visitors, especially schoolchildren and staff and families from the communities served by Gippsland Water to benefit from its “Vortex” visitor centre at GWF, which provides an educational service focused on water and sustainability.
Be sure to leave a comment or email us if you are interested in learning more about industrial and urban ecology and how the framework can be applied in your community.
Andrew Hodgkinson is a recent recruit to CH2M HILL, with 27 years of experience in the process and consulting industries. Andrew has held the role of Technical Director for the Gippsland Water Factory Alliance since inception in 2006, and is also the ANZ Regional Sustainability Coordinator for CH2M HILL’s Global Water Sustainability Initiative.
[i] Jared Diamond is an American scientist and the author of Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive (2005). Also published as Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed.