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Combining economics and engineering to research a sustainable resource lifecycle

Research Institute for Industrial Ecology of Sustainable Resource Management

Upon entering the 21st century, there has been a dramatic shift towards the idea that corporate management equals environmental management. In other words, a form of corporate management in which action to reduce environmental load is a natural prerequisite. Within such management, it is important to objectively and quantitatively evaluate the concept of "friendly to the environment." For example, consider the case of an electric automobile which is said to be environmentally friendly. What if greater amounts of resources and energy are consumed during the production process for that electric automobile? Or, what if there is a poor recycle rate for the material and components which will be used in the automobile. In such cases, the electric automobile cannot be called environmentally friendly.

Currently, corporations have a social responsibility to focus on the total material flow for resources which they use. In addition to recycling within the corporation, this flow spans from the level of raw materials and the supplier before procurement until the usage and disposal processes after a product has been transferred to consumers. Therefore, there has been an advance from previous vague environmental activities. Nowadays, there is a growth in activities to conduct detailed analysis of efficiency and cost for the resource lifecycle based on scientific valuation analysis methods and to disclose this information to society, as well as to pursue even further reform.

Such actions are supported by industrial ecology, which is a relatively new area of interdisciplinary research. In order to achieve efficient use of limited resources, industrial ecology focuses on the ecology of resources in industrial society and examines methods for valuation analysis of material flow and associated costs in order to efficiently use resources through activities such as recycling. Currently, a variety of valuation analysis methods for assessing environmental impact are being implemented by major corporations, the national government and municipalities. One example is the lifecycle assessment (LCA) which is required by the ISO14000 series of environmental management standards. Such tools have developed and spread together with industrial ecology.

Industrial ecology has mainly been led by Western researchers and engineers. However, Asia has also made some contributions, particularly in input-output analysis of industrial ecology. These contributions were made by an interdisciplinary research group of Waseda University which is led by Professor Shinichiro Nakamura (Faculty of Political Science and Economics), Professor Yasuyuki Kondo (Faculty of Political Science and Economics) and Professor Shuji Owada (Faculty of Science and Engineering). Furthermore, the Research Institute for Industrial Ecology of Sustainable Resource Management was established in October 2010 as part of the project for University Research Initiatives at Waseda University. The institute was established to realize further growth in joint research which has bridged science/engineering and economics for more than 10 years. We discussed the actions and goals of the institute with Professor Nakamura, who also serves as Director of the institute.

Professor Shinichiro Nakamura, Director of the Research Institute for Industrial Ecology of Sustainable Resource Management

The new field of industrial ecology

"When hearing about interdisciplinary research in the environment and economics, most people probably imagine environmental economics. However, environmental economics is a field that places importance on economics and conducts economic analysis which incorporates environmental factors. Conversely, industrial ecology places more importance on scientific and engineering knowledge. Industrial ecology integrates different corporations and industries in order to examine how resources are produced and consumed. This field also uses methods such as input-output economic analysis in order to conduct research on methods for valuation analysis of resource flow." (Professor Nakamura)

An international academic conference entitled Industrial Ecology officially began in 2001. Only about 10 years have passed since the first meeting was held in the Netherlands. At that time, Professor Nakamura had already organized a research committee named Economic Analysis of Waste Management (1997 to 2000) within the Institute for Research in Contemporary Economic and Political Affairs at Waseda University. Through this committee, Professor Nakamura was advancing cooperative research between faculty from the fields of economics and science/engineering. When researching sustainable economics, he realized that there is a limit to abstract and qualitative economic analysis which ignores actual data for raw materials and energy. Based on this realization, Professor Nakamura enlisted the help of researchers from various fields both inside and outside of Waseda University, as well as corporate engineers and experts. Using this cooperation, he quickly developed research activities related to industrial ecology. In particular, Professor Nakamura developed a unique analysis method known as WIO (Waste Input-Output) approach. This method would later gain wide recognition both in Japan and overseas.

A prototype table for WIO. The table shows the assets and cycle of waste products for an economy composed of 5 types of production sections, 3 types of waste treatment sections and a final demand section. Waste products received at a waste treatment section are converted to other types of waste products. Some conventional input-output tables displayed monetary amounts for the assets and service flow of the rows/columns which are shown in green in the table above. However, WIO expands this display to include waste treatment and material flow for waste products and by-products. This expansion made it possible for input-output analysis to assess all phases of the product lifecycle from manufacturing to usage and disposal.

"At that time, Professor Shozo Takada (School of Science and Engineering) and other Waseda faculty played a leading role in developing the concept of environmentally-conscious product design. In 1999, Japan's first International EcoDesign Symposium (official name: 1st International Symposium on Environmentally Conscious Design and Inverse Manufacturing) was held at the International Conference Center of Waseda University. Environmentally management had become a hot topic at that time, and the purpose of the symposium was to convey Japan's outstanding product design technology throughout the world. Many of the faculty members at Waseda showed intellectual curiosity towards this trend. The symposium was also the first international conference at which WIO was presented. Although the 'W' in WIO stands for 'waste,' it also stands for 'Waseda.'" (Professor Nakamura)

Professor Nakamura's original area of expertise was economic analysis using a statistical method known as econometrics. However, at Waseda University, he had the opportunity to interact with Professor Shuji Owada, an expert in resource recycling engineering, with Professor Katsumi Yorimoto, an expert in municipal research, and with many veteran researches with expert knowledge in the field of waste products. As a result of these encounters, Professor Nakamura's interest shifted towards economics for waste products based on input-output analysis. The research activities of these faculty members continued to grow steadily to form theSustainable Society Research Committeeand theWIO & MFA (Material Flow Analysis) Research Committee.

Photograph (left):Quest for Waste Product Economics(Waseda University Publishing, 2002), a summary of results by the Economic Analysis of Waste Management Research Committee (1997 to 2000).
Photograph (right):Lifecycle Input-Output Analysis(Waseda University Publishing, 2007), a summary of results by the WIO & MFA (Material Flow Analysis) Research Committee (2001 to 2005).

Fusion of input-output analysis and engineering data

In addition to research activities based on partnerships within Waseda University, Professor Nakamura and his colleague Professor Yasuyuki Kondo (Faculty of Political Science and Economics) participated in a project entitled Substance/Material Flow as Sustainability Indexes (2003 to 2005) which was led by Professor Nagasaka Tetsuya from the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Tohoku University. This project was part of the Sustainable Society Program at the Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society, which is part the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST). Within the project, Professor Nakamura conducted in-depth research in the new specialized field of input-output analysis for substance/material flow. Through his meeting with the metallic engineering researcher Professor Nagasaka, Professor Nakamura was able to earnestly pursue interdisciplinary economic and engineering research which connected input-output analysis with metallic material flow analysis.

"The high level of Japanese research in input-output analysis has always been recognized throughout the world. There were high international expectations for research which fused input-output analysis and metallic engineering. It was not enough to simple produce a model based on deskwork calculations. Instead, I wanted to integrate actual data possessed by experimental engineering. It is said that industrial ecology for metals never would have been established in Western countries without knowledge in thermodynamics and metallurgy. Professor Nagasaka is an engineer who possesses in-depth knowledge of such data. By combining my method with required data in metallic material flow analysis, we were able to develop a new analytical approach known as WIO-MFA." (Professor Nakamura)

Even after completion of the JST program, Professor Nakamura continued joint research with Professor Nagasaka and other faculty at Tohoku University. Their group was recognized internationally for valuable contributions to metal recycling. They participated in the creation of a document on metal recycling issued by theUnited Nations Environment Program (UNEP) (scheduled for to be published in 2012). The two professors have achieved astounding results such as publishing a specialized book on WIO as the first volume of an industry ecology series by a leading overseas publishing company (refer to photograph below).

While making such progress, Professor Nakamura applied to participate in University Research Initiatives, a competitive research grant system within Waseda University. As a result, the Research Institute for Industrial Ecology of Sustainable Resource Management was established in 2010. Based on his achievements over the past 10 years, Professor Nakamura is now seeking to take further steps as an organizational action of Waseda University. He has established the research theme of "industrial ecology of sustainable resource management" and is conducting research activities which are focused on his area of expertise in metallic material flow.

"Industrial ecology is experiencing rapid growth in terms of academics and policies, as well as an environmental business. In only 10 years, the impact factor (an academic index which measures the average number of citations from published articles) of the Journal of Industrial Ecology has risen to a high level of more than 2.4. In the future, the importance of industrial ecology will continue to increase both as a fundamental academic research field and as a practical research field through joint industry-academia research. There are still many faculty members at Waseda University who are expected to contribute to industrial ecology. Moving forward, I hope to involve even more faculty members and expand our research." (Professor Nakamura)

A specialist book on WIO analysis co-written by Professor Nakamura and Professor Kondo (both of the Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University) of the Research Institute for Industrial Ecology of Sustainable Resource Management. Nakamura, S., and Kondo, Y. (2009). Waste Input-Output Analysis: Concepts and Application to Industrial Ecology (Eco-Efficiency in Industry and Science, Vol. 26). Springer.

Selected as part of the EU joint international graduate school program

In addition to research, Waseda University has achieved remarkable growth in education for industrial ecology. Our university was selected as one of seven universities which compose the Master's Course in Industrial Ecology, a course established from the 2011 autumn semester for the EU Erasmus Mundus program in joint international graduate school education. Other participating universities include the University of Graz (Austria), the Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), the Delft University of Technology and Leiden University (Netherlands) from the EU; the University of Rochester (USA); and the Asian Institute of Technology (Thailand). In this program, students from the EU region can study freely at any participating university within the network and students from outside the EU region can study at one of the four universities within the EU. At Waseda University, the Graduate School of Economics hosts students from the EU region.

"Our selection to the EU Erasmus Mundus program shows that the high level of education at the graduate school is recognized internationally. We should be very proud. From the 2011 autumn semester, 25 students selected from applicants throughout the world are already studying as the first group of this program at universities in the EU. Waseda University will become able to accept students from the 2012 autumn semester." (Professor Nakamura)

Poster for the EU Erasmus Mundus Master's Programme in Industrial Ecology

Revolutionary and unexpected ideas are born while conducting research in industrial ecology. By refining recycling technology for metallic materials, it may be possible to extract materials which are disposed of as impurities contained within metal, as well as rare metals which are essential for the production of semiconductors and IT appliances. This would make it possible to secure the substantial amounts of rare metal needed by Japan. It may not be long before research in industrial ecology produces new industrial strategies which are appropriate for an era of environmental management.

Flow of pig iron which is used in automobiles shown using UPIOM, an expansion of WIO-MFA. The flow is a visualization of the process in which material is processed and integrated into the final product.

Related Links

Waseda University Research Institute for Industrial Ecology of Sustainable Resource Management
Waseda University Organization for University Research Initiatives
Waseda University Faculty of Political Science and Economics
Waseda University Faculty of Science and Engineering
Erasumus Mundus Master's Programme in Industrial Ecology