Expanding Industrial Ecology by Applying Community Ecology Principles and Developing Diversity Metrics for Sustainable Product Systems

EPA Grant Number: FP917364
Title: Expanding Industrial Ecology by Applying Community Ecology Principles and Developing Diversity Metrics for Sustainable Product Systems
Investigators: Ryen, Erinn G
Institution: Rochester Institute of Technology
EPA Project Officer: Zambrana, Jose
Project Period: September 1, 2011 through August 31, 2014
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2011) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Science & Technology for Sustainability: Green Engineering/Building/Chemical Products & Processes/Materials Development


Industrial ecology provides a holistic framework that can provide insight on complex relationships between industrial and ecological systems. However, practical implementation and application of industrial ecology has been constrained by the same complexity that gives the field its desired breadth and comprehensive nature. Therefore, an opportunity exists to uncover new concepts in biological ecology with relevance to industrial systems and potentially more practical feasibility. This research project will: (1) formulate a conceptual framework based on principles of community ecology; (2) develop community scale metaphors and models to better understand the structure of industrial product systems; and (3) test and refine community models related with cases studies in information communication and technology (ICT) product systems.


Research will be conducted in three integrated phases. Phase One constructs a conceptual research framework based on community ecology principles identified by literature review. Phase Two identifies and describes relevant metaphors and models from biological systems, focusing on community structure. Relevant terminology from biological systems is translated to industrial ecology, emphasizing how concepts relate to the test case. In Phase Three, models are developed and refined with test cases in ICT. A Diversity Flow Model investigates the association between the evolving structures of ICT systems and economic factors that drive end of life reuse and recycling. This model combines product/material flow analysis, biological ecology diversity indices and multi-criteria optimization. A Geospatial Diversity Model extends the first model’s methodology using geographic information system (GIS) software. Maps of material diversity and recovery value densities visualize end of life material stream changes over time, as well as sensitivity to market prices and larger impacts such as technology shifts and legislation.

Expected Results:

Achieving the research objectives will demonstrate that the community ecology perspective can provide valuable insight to understanding stability and sustainability of ICT product systems. Manufacturers and recyclers can use the tools to design products and recycling technologies that optimize material recovery and minimize resource consumption, pollution and waste generation. Resulting data also can be used to inform policies, such as electronic waste regulation, and prioritize which material or product system to evaluate for life cycle impacts.

Potential to Further Environmental / Human Health Protection

Understanding how product systems are structured can help preserve sustainable systems, protect against undesirable disturbances, or destabilize existing unsustainable structures to transition towards a sustainable path. Achieving the research objectives will further environmental protection by maximizing recovery of valuable and scarce materials, minimizing environmental impacts of toxic substances, and reducing embodied energy losses from ICT and other products. In addition, this research may help decision-makers modify existing recycling and emission control technologies to accommodate new material streams.

Supplemental Keywords:

diversity, sustainability, industrial ecology, community structure, ICT products

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2012
  • 2013
  • Final