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Spring 1998

UCAR fosters Colorado industrial ecology effort

A new UCAR-sponsored initiative is giving companies on the Colorado Front Range a chance both to improve their bottom lines and to benefit their environment. The Colorado Industrial Ecology Project was brought to birth by the UCAR Office of Development and Government Affairs (OGDA) and is being overseen by Bryan Morgan, a Denver attorney with long ties to UCAR; Andy Trenka, a research associate in mechanical engineering at Colorado State University (CSU); John Firor, a former NCAR director; and Cynthia Schmidt, director of the OGDA. Funding is provided by Bonfils Stanton in Colorado and an anonymous East Coast foundation.

UCAR's involvement in this program came through the Walter Orr Roberts Institute, which had collected funds to start a project of the sort that NCAR's founding director would have endorsed. "He was interested in food and population issues, and he would have been right in the thick of the sustainable development movement," says Schmidt. As she polled Roberts's friends and the donors to select an appropriate project, industrial ecology was often mentioned, and Morgan and Firor were both interested in the subject. They agreed to take it on.

The term was coined about a decade ago to describe a variety of efforts to make businesses function together more like the earth's ecosystems. In these, the waste stream from one species may nourish another, which in turn produces waste that feeds a third species, and so on around the circle. Most efficient ecosystems are self-perpetuating. In comparison, the classic model of industry calls for a constant input of resources and an equally constant output of waste materials. This model is possible because industries do not have to pay the true social costs for natural resources they use--costs that would include the depletion of the resource and the damage to the environment created during extraction or harvesting. In a world where resources are growing scarce and waste disposal is expensive, this model needs rethinking. And it certainly is not sustainable.

Even the most conscientious manufacturer can only go so far in reusing and recycling its own input and output. But if industries can be brought together, one company's output may contain a needed input for another company--from water or heat to expensive chemicals. Bringing businesses together is the purpose of the Colorado Industrial Ecology Project.

So far, the participants are Coors Brewing Co. in Golden, the Conoco petrochemical refinery off I-270 in Commerce City, Syntex in Boulder, two smaller firms in Commerce City, and another in Boulder. At press time Trenka was finalizing an agreement with Lockheed Martin in Denver and continuing discussions with several other businesses and communities up and down the Front Range.

Firor's involvement in the project is "very general," he says. "I spend a lot of time on the road talking to companies about environmental problems. I frequently give talks about industrial ecology and sometimes meet with people in industry to see if they want to participate."

In his recruitment efforts, Trenka has found that, to convince businesses to join up, "We must not only get in the door, but hit the right groups. Upper management and the environmental department are generally the most productive in securing company involvement.

"It doesn't cost the company any out-of-pocket money initially," Trenka adds. "Their investment is one of time and of pulling together the data on input/output streams in the format we're asking for." Working with CSU colleague Byron Winn and two part-time graduate students, Trenka has started data bases for the participants.

The main hitch in getting agreements signed is dealing with the issues of confidentiality. Trenka has devised a series of procedures that safeguard information about the participants' resource use, which might be valuable to their competitors. For example, once the project has identified a match, Trenka will get consent from each company before beginning the matchmaking process at all. He will also ascertain each one's willingness to supply or use the particular resource in question before identifying the two companies to each other. Once he has introduced them, Trenka will facilitate the ongoing discussions, if requested. "The users will decide whether it's worth it to create contractual relationships with each other."

The project also intends to work with regulatory agencies--federal, state, and local--to facilitate the materials exchanges. "Say the resource is hot water," Trenka offers. "Both companies agree that they'll share the costs of moving it from point A to point B, but now you have to cross somebody else's property or a public right of way. What regulatory constraints might come into play?" Since industrial ecology is a recent idea, regulations weren't written for this kind of scenario. "We're trying to point out how some regulation is impeding that exchange and how it would be beneficial to modify it."

Setting up the project was "a long, hard road," Firor says. Industrial ecology projects involving established businesses are virtually unknown in the United States; Trenka knew of only one other example, at the Port of Houston. However, Morgan points out, "It is something that actually works in the real world." He gives the examples of Kalundborg, Denmark, and Rotterdam, The Netherlands. "Both of those locales have functioning, multiunit waste exchange programs that feed into other industries," he says. "It's a wonderful movement that's dawning in Europe, and it seemed to us that it ought to be dawning in the United States."

For further information about the project, contact Schmidt (303-497-2107 or cschmidt@ucar.edu) or Trenka (970-491-3864 or atrenka@engr.colostate.edu).

Clockwise from lower right: Cynthia Schmidt, Andy Trenka, Bryan Morgan, and John Firor. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

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