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Industrial Symbiosis Promotes Company Cooperation and Resource Reuse

With the help of worms and maggots, the natural world can put most ‘shit’ to purpose, while some big industries seem to generate more waste than they're worth. Jon Turney explores a more promising approach to resource use.

The South Wales plant of Sekisuki Alveo makes plastic foam for car panels, and lots of it. There are always some bits left over, and the plant re-uses what it can. Now, thanks to contacts made through the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP), the surplus is picked up by another company in the area. That’s hundreds of tonnes of a year that is reprocessed to make building material for houses.

Industrial symbiosis – or in other words, making the most of any underused resources (materials, water, energy, expertise and so on) by asking how one company’s surplus can meet another’s needs – sounds like a no-brainer. More often than not, it’s a win both financially and environmentally. Effluent, offal, slops, husks, swarf, ash dust, sewage… These are all raw materials, if you find the right way to use them. Just think how biological systems work. They reuse anything they can, scavenging energy and materials wherever they are left idle – because efficiency translates into fitness. Dead bodies decompose because other organisms use them to live. Even feces usually gets eaten.

It is surprisingly difficult to get this kind of thing going in manmade industry, though. It can happen spontaneously, and grow into a rich network of recycling, reprocessing and information sharing. The shining (and much cited) example is the industrial town of Kalundborg in Denmark. There, a core of big plants, including an oil refinery, a waste water plant, enzyme and insulin factories and a coal-fired power station, maintain a web of energy and waste transfer. They also link with other enterprises ranging from a fish farm to a bioethanol plant. The yeast from insulin production is used as fodder for some 800,000 pigs.

Kalundborg is now criss-crossed by a specialised network of pipes which simplify the logistics, and make it easy for each business to take a systemic approach. The benefits include low energy use, carbon savings of about 250,000 tons per year, cuts of around 30 percent in water consumption, and minimal waste for disposal.

So why are there not more Kalundborgs in the world? Shouldn’t all industry work this way? Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done. The tightly coupled symbioses in this small Danish town emerged spontaneously in the 1960s because company executives knew each other, and they took 40 years to mature. But the rarity of such self-organised exchanges has spurred some governments and regional authorities to try to create similar systems by design.

The most common model for doing this is a so-called eco-industrial park: a purpose-built estate which aspires to the kind of recycling seen in natural systems. The U.S., the Netherlands, China, India, the Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka have all experimented with this sort of top-down approach. But decreeing the exchange of materials and waste streams is not the same as achieving it. According to academics who have studied the issue, such as David Gibbs of the University of Hull, efforts to create viable industrial symbiosis in such projects have often faltered. Several U.S. parks had to abandon their original standards for waste handling and recycling in order to attract commercial tenants. And forging partnerships between the companies that move in can be hard.

An alternative approach is not to tie symbiosis to any particular location, but to draw on the needs and resources of a network of companies – or “to work with the willing,” as Peter Laybourn puts it.

Laybourn is the founder and head of International Synergies, a company that runs symbiosis projects across the world, including its flagship in the UK: the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP). In his experience, willingness comes when companies see a clear route to benefit, usually a financial one. And we’re not talking small change. In its seve years, NISP has saved companies over £1 billion in costs and generated £993 million in additional sales – whilst at the same time producing environmental benefits, including saving 39 million tonnes of CO2.

So how did the company do it? First, it built up a large network to help companies identify and meet partners with complementary needs. This network offers a variety of matchmaking methods. There’s the profiling stage: NISP gets to know individual companies by paying a visit and trying to understand the processes they use. These companies join thousands of others in a database (like an online dating site for industry). This is a valuable resource for NISP’s staff, who are aces at spotting potential links between industries. Themed workshops give the companies an opportunity to spot potential in each other – a bit like speed dating.

“The market failure that industrial symbiosis tries to address is that of information,” says Laybourn. But as well as having it, you have to make sure it reaches the right people: “The key ingredient is facilitation.”

The results can be impressive. Thanks to NISP, the nitrogenous chemicals producer GrowHow UK pumps 12,500 tonnes of CO2 a year to a 38-acre greenhouse in Billingham, County Durham, where 300,000 tomato plants are grown each year. The plant also supplies steam to heat the greenhouse.

Similar stories can be found across the country. In Cambridge, the track for a new 26km guided bus system harbours 1.8 million shredded car tires in its bedding – just the right sort of material for drainage. And in Staffordshire, meat and bone meal from an animal rendering plant is being used to fuel cement kilns, instead of going to landfill. Diversity is the rule, and careful matching of partners is vital.

It was money set aside from the UK’s landfill tax that got NISP off the ground back in 2005, and diverting waste from landfill is one of its primary goals – although the benefits reach much further. It has easily met the targets set by the government for carbon reduction, more efficient use of materials, cost savings and even extra income for the companies involved. Moreover, the government received an excellent return on investment – of the order of eight to one – through increased tax revenues from companies that became more profitable.

So can the success of the NISP be replicated? If it’s ever going to reach its potential as a global solution for reducing the environmental impact of industrial activities, says Laybourn, we’ll need a much better understanding of the time and effort it takes to establish productive relationships. Building eco-industrial parks isn’t enough, he argues, they need to be carefully orchestrated, developing networks of individuals and companies who can promote the flow of resources, and gather information about who needs what. In September 2012, International Synergies transitioned the UK NISP public investment model to a commercial subscription network model – which means that it can now operate outside of pre-determined Government metrics.

Laybourn is working hard to build high-level support for industrial symbiosis as part of broader strategies for sustainability, and is cheered by a recent decision that the European Union’s Climate Knowledge and Innovation Community will support the development of an industrial symbiosis platform for Europe. His company, International Synergies, is already working with an ambitious scheme in Northern China, as part of a four-year partnership funded by the European Union. The Switch-Asia Project covers a series of industrial parks in the Binhai New Area, Tianjin, and aims to recruit over 1,000 companies spread over 2,250 square-kilometres to a new network for the comprehensive use and exchange of resources.

The 2012 International Working Conference on Applied Industrial Symbiosis in Birmingham brought together policy makers, companies and practitioners from all over the world, and compared the current state of industrial symbiosis in the UK with efforts in other countries – including Denmark, China, Korea, Mexico, the U.S. and Australia. There are various approaches, ranging from the self-organised method à la Kalundborg, to facilitators operating independently in Australia, to the networking approach of NISP.

“All these models can be complementary”, says Laybourn.

Indeed, International Synergies is now working with Birmingham City Council to include symbiosis in the regeneration plans for an industrial area. In some ways, the scheme will be planned in a top-down way, but it will also make use of networks to spot further opportunities for collaboration.

Laybourn argues that NISP shows that some possible problems which have been highlighted by academics – such as confidentiality, distribution of benefits and the need for co-operating companies to be close together – are not serious in practice. “These issues are not barriers to progressing,” he asserts.

In his experience, knowledge transfer and access to expertise can be as important over time as the direct exchange of energy or materials. And although exchanges of bulky wastes, water or heat tend to be short range, those involving higher value materials like specialty chemicals or precious metals need not be tied to a single locality like an industrial park.

A well-established network like the UK’s NISP programme can also look beyond unilateral links, where one outfit has the answer to another’s problem. It can also prove a breeding ground for new partnerships, new technology and innovation.

Laybourn cites a recent example: Betts Envirometal, in Birmingham. Betts started off smelting precious metals for the city’s jewellery quarter, but now also specialises in handling valuable waste. Advice from the University of Birmingham a few years ago allowed it to substitute a planned £2 million incinerator for old X-ray films with a new process for chemical recovery of silver. As radiographers turn to digital media, Betts Envirometal continues to work with the university to find new ways of getting valuable metals out of other waste streams, thus safeguarding its future business.

As well as promoting innovation, the main job now is spreading the word. Industrial symbiosis may not trip off the tongue, but is now recognised by the European Commission, the World Bank and OECD as a thing worth backing. “It is not a solution to everything,” says Laybourn, “but we can do it now, with immediate benefits.” His vision is broadening. “I can see, in my lifetime, a pan-European network.” There are already first efforts in several other European countries, and he hopes backing from the European Commission will encourage others to follow suit.

Laybourn would like to see the principles of International Synergies applied worldwide. And why not? It’s an industrial version of good housekeeping.

Jon Turney is a science writer, and author of ‘The Rough Guide to the Future’.

For more information about International Synergies’ projects, including NISP, visit: www.international-synergies.com

image: Mr Ullmi via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)

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