Does the invisible hand have a green thumb? Incentives, linkages, and the creation of wealth out of industrial waste in Victorian England

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‘Loop closing’, that is, the creation of waste recycling linkages between different industries, has been hailed as a means of simultaneously achieving improved economic and environmental performance. As a result of the widespread assumption that traditional market incentives and institutions are not conducive to such an outcome, however, there remains a fair amount of scepticism as to what the capacity of business self-interest to promote this behaviour actually is. This article challenges the dominant negative perspective by discussing by-product development in one of the most market-oriented societies in human history, Victorian England. Building on nineteenth and early twentieth century writings on the topic, as well as a more detailed analysis of the development of valuable by-products from highly problematic iron and coal gas production residuals, a case is made that the search for increased profitability within the context of private property rights often simultaneously promoted economic and environmental progress in the long run, as well as on different geographical scales.

Keywords: Porter hypothesis; Victorian England; by-product development; coal gas; coal tar; industrial symbiosis; slag

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga, 3359 Mississauga Road North, Mississauga, ON, Canada L5L 1C6, Email:

Publication date: March 1, 2009

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