Industrial Ecology – Subaru

I love diagrams like this... and nothing is more diagrammed than the idealistic dream of industrial ecology. The problem I'm having is finding the case studies that apply these principles. The picture above links to an open course on the topic...

There are huge gaps in my knowledge around industrial ecology (or it’s new title; “industrial symbiosis”) and yet it is a story I want to know more about. The famous Kalundborg industrial park is the poster story, of integrated fabrication with cyclical processes, waste becoming food, becoming waste, becoming food in an increasingly closed loop. More information here.

But beyond Kalundborg, it is hard to find many good stories. I’d love if someone more aware of these processes might have something to share, there is a lot more to learn. In the mean time, I recently read an article about Subaru’s manufacturing plant in Indiana that got me thinking. Here’s an opening quote from the article:

Toyota made kaizen—the Japanese principle of constant “change for the better,” with a special focus on efficiency, aka “pushing lean”—famous. [Subaru], you could say, has instilled green kaizen, or pushing green. Starting in 2002, SIA set a five-year target for becoming the nation’s first zero-landfill car factory. That meant recycling or composting 98 percent of the plant’s waste—with an on-site broker taking bids for paper, plastic, glass, and metals—and incinerating the remaining 2 percent that isn’t recoverable at a nearby waste-to-fuel operation to sell power back to the grid. Within two years, the results spoke for themselves.

Photo from Business Week, above link to the full article.

The article is from Business Week, so naturally it celebrates the business advantage created by the innovative methods for cost cutting and materials savings ($5.3 million last year). But as a designer exploring scenarios of sustainability, I can’t help but see deep principles of biomimicry, and visions of industrial ecology at play.

Workers are rewarded for identifying iterative improvements that help shave material off products, time off production cycles, and reduce waste. These are the feedback loops of evolution that we see in nature, embodied and executed throughout a manufacturing process. The same iterative cycle improvements celebrated by Subaru are active within every organism. The bone density and muscle mass lost from an Astronaut in space is the body’s natural efficiency mechanisms getting rid of anything that is strictly unnecessary.

I’m not sure that I would make the leap to describe the Subaru manufacturing process as biomimicry, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. If only the relationship to the product didn’t finish the moment it left the factory floor. If that symbiosis could continue between manufacturing plant and end product throughout and beyond the life of the car, this could become a really intriguing dialogue.

One Comment on “Industrial Ecology – Subaru”

  1. Carl,
    Casey and I met these folks from EcoIndustrial at the Canadian Pollution Prevention Roundtable in 2008, in Edmonton. They are based out of Vancouver and specialize in green industrial development and eco-industrial parks.

    You can find them at:

    Might give you an idea of what’s happening in Canada on that front.


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