Industrial symbiosis: realising the circular economy  

Industrial symbiosis: realising the circular economy  

Industrial symbiosis is the use by one company or sector of by-products, including energy, water, logistics and materials, from another. Simple examples include the use of food waste from the catering sector to feed farm animals, or the use of non-toxic industrial waste to produce energy through incineration. However, in a developed economy with many industrial activities, many different by-products are generated, and the range of potential uses for them can be equally diverse.

This is where structured industrial symbiosis programmes come into play. These involve a form of brokering to bring companies together in innovative collaborations, finding new ways to use resources, and thus to increase revenues while reducing waste and the associated costs.

The United Kingdom has been an industrial symbiosis pioneer. In one UK case study, a company that produces vehicle air conditioning units and engine cooling systems provides one of its waste products - a hazardous potassium aluminium fluoride-based substance - to a company that is able to use it in the recycling of aluminium. The arrangement cut hazardous waste by 15 tonnes per year, and reduced waste management costs by £30,000 (€36,000). Other UK examples include the supply of food waste for electricity generation via anaerobic digestion, and the diversion of carbon dioxide generated in the manufacturing of nitrogen products and methanol to enable year-round cultivation of tomatoes in greenhouses.

The UK National Industrial Symbiosis Programme was established by International Synergies Limited, a company that is also one of the leading proponents of the European Industrial Symbiosis Association (EUR-ISA), which formally launched in November 2013. International Synergies' chief executive Peter Laybourn discussed the objectives of EUR-ISA and how industrial symbiosis can boost the circular economy in Europe.


What are the aims of EUR-ISA?

Peter Laybourn: EUR-ISA was established to support the implementation of industrial symbiosis across Europe and provides the European Commission with a single point of contact with the multiple industrial symbiosis projects in different Member States. The association was launched following recommendations made by the European Resource Efficiency Platform

, which championed industrial symbiosis as a mechanism for reducing carbon, preserving critical resources and securing business sustainability.

EUR-ISA also aims to promote cross-border opportunities for the 20,000+ businesses currently participating in the networks, and for the thousands of companies expected to engage with industrial symbiosis in the near future.


Are industrial symbiosis programmes generally government-backed or are they private sector initiatives?

Peter Laybourn: The industrial symbiosis programmes that EUR-ISA members are involved with are based around public private partnerships - modest public investment to employ specialist facilitators from the private sector to engage with industry.

The availability of public investment minimises two of the greatest barriers for business involvement in industrial symbiosis: time and money.

With no charge to participate (investment is used primarily to support operations) all businesses regardless of size, sector or bank balance, can get involved. Investment in specialist facilitators also ensures that innovative and sustainable opportunities for resource use are identified, with residual materials driven as high up the value chain as possible. 

These facilitators also act as trusted independents who guide businesses from initial idea through to implementation. Evidence shows that without this facilitation most opportunities would not be even identified, never-mind realised - often because companies cannot afford the time to research the opportunities, and may lack the specific knowledge to make them happen.

Experience has also shown that although alternative models of industrial symbiosis delivery can work, they do so at much smaller scale and do not deliver the innovation, carbon reduction and jobs of a public investment model.

At its peak in the UK, the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) was actively working with 15,000 businesses, the majority of which were SMEs or micros - a difficult segment of industry to engage with on this agenda given all the other pressures on them.   With such an extensive network, NISP successfully identified and closed out thousands of synergies, collectively cutting England’s carbon dioxide emissions by 42 million tonnes and redirecting over 48 million tonnes of ‘wasted resources’ from landfill. Nearly 20% of NISP synergies involved some form of innovation, many bringing new research and development to market in record time because of the demand-pull of the programme on eco-innovation. It also was responsible for over 10,000 jobs.


How will EUR-ISA be funded?

Peter Laybourn: The initial costs were funded by International Synergies and in the first year of operation the founding members will each contribute to the running costs of the association. A membership subscription or sponsorship is envisaged thereafter.


Although industrial symbiosis has been pioneered in the UK, the UK NISP is being wound down. What impact will this have?

Peter Laybourn: The UK NISP is the most successful example of industrial symbiosis that has achieved wide-scale engagement with industry and significant, independently audited results. But it has been one of the many casualties of the cuts in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit, and also has encountered some UK government departmental dogma that “if industry benefits then industry should pay”.

In many circumstances this might be the right approach, but what has been fundamentally misjudged is that industrial symbiosis activities create a multiplier effect creating incomes for governments that (based on UK experience) are at least six times the public investment. Similarly, industry is in no sense getting anything for ‘free’ as it is they who put in the time and investment to make the synergies happen. Fortunately we have learned from the NISP, and we can help other European industrial symbiosis programmes with this experience behind us.

International Synergies will maintain a national UK NISP Network, and for some regions will implement specific industrial symbiosis programmes typically backed by the European Regional Development Fund. In addition, we have started pioneering a new ‘pro-active’ (as opposed to the NISP demand-led model) approach to industrial symbiosis that looks at what is possible for regional economic development/regeneration and inward investment.