Managing the flows? Furthering a socio-material flow methodology for industrial ecology

Abstract: This dissertation defends the thesis that application of the socio-material methodology that I present can assist environmentally more effective decision-making. The methodology provides a recipe for a systematic and accurate understanding of how human actions determine environmental impacts via material (tangible) flows. The methodology combines engineering, interpretative, and critical studies of material flows, interactions between humans and material objects, and nets of human interaction. This approach extends existing industrial ecology methods on quantitative models of actors, and the limited methodological consideration in studies that connect social and material aspects. Within the dissertation, an introductory overview, a literature review, field studies, and a conceptual study support the methodology. The overview shows that earlier studies have illustrated that actors’ different relations to material flows determine these flows. The review covered an analysis of other literature that shows the environmental relevance of complex relations between and conflicts among humans. This literature explicitly shows that mainstream industrial ecology may underestimate sustainability challenges by focusing too much on only material flows. The field studies are based on interviews, observation, and text studies for 17 different material flows and illustrate the efficiency of the methodology, its application to recycling, and that its use can reveal environmentally important human action that relate to the product flows of cement and packaging, among other. The findings include the identification of non-trivial organisational findings, such as the lack of coordination in the bread product chain resulting in the discarding of bread, and, in another study, the presence of ‘free riders’ distorting the governance of packaging recycling. Finally, the conceptual study both outlined concepts and procedures in the methodology, and its basis in a combination of the naturalistic, interpretative, and critical philosophy of science schools. Future research on the methodology could cover the use of the methodology for informing actual decision-making and an application to the suggested sustainability response economic degrowth.