Industrial symbiosis continues onward and upward

Industrial symbiosis continues onward and upward

A UK initiative that identifies synergies between businesses for economic, environmental and social benefit has chalked up impressive results and is now expanding into Europe.

The UK National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) has leapt from success to success. Its ingenious central idea is that the waste of one company becomes the raw material for another, the first saving on disposal and the latter on procurement. At the same time, the environment benefits from less material use and new jobs may be created.

In 2005, International Synergies, a private company led by Peter Laybourn, created the programme and rolled it out across the UK with a network of regional teams.

Over the next five years, Laybourn and his colleagues clocked up impressive results:

  • diverted 35 million tonnes of waste from landfill;
  • saved 48 million tonnes of water, 30 million tonnes of CO2 and 49 million tonnes of virgin raw material; and
  • eliminated 1.8 million tonnes of hazardous waste.

In effect they diverted 16.6% of waste from landfill in England and avoided 4% of the UK’s industrial CO2 emissions. The companies involved – 14 000 today – saved over €1.1 trillion and recorded additional sales of €1.2 trillion. 22,000 jobs were created.

Some of the figures, such as for waste diverted and money saved are ten-fold what they were after the first three years of the scheme! All this cost the British government €37 million, but a report by Manchester Economics indicates that for every €1 invested, the government got €8.9 back.

Several reasons for success

Laybourn attributes NISP’s success to several factors. First, it is a programme that engages, rather than preaches. Second, it addresses a whole swathe of challenges companies face: from cutting carbon emissions to reducing costs, especially in the wake of the economic crisis. Third and perhaps most important of all, it has benefited from adequate public funding. This has come primarily through the UK’s landfill tax.

A report on the economics of resource efficiency policies, commissioned by the Environment DG last year and whose final version is imminent, suggests funding is the main limiting factor for spreading NISP-based programmes to the rest of Europe. In practical terms, funding translates into the number of programme staff that can be supported.

Based on this insight, the EU is playing an invaluable role in supporting fledgling NISP projects in Romania and Hungary through its LIFE+ programme. In Romania, the EU is providing 42% of a total €880 700 set aside for a regional start-up programme from February 2009 to October 2011. In Hungary, it is providing half of nearly €800 000 budgeted for three years from January 2010.

The second way in which the EU provides crucial support is by offering a platform to showcase NISP projects’ success, for example by giving its practitioners speaking slots at the EU’s annual Green Week and exposure through articles and events organised by the EU’s Environmental Technologies Action Plan (ETAP) team.

Firmly on economic agenda

The vast bulk of NISP participants are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and their number one priority is to cut costs. Yet the economic crisis got the Romanian programme off to a difficult start, according to Iulia Degeratu from Romania’s environment ministry. “It was very hard to convince people to take part in an EU project on resource efficiency when they were mainly trying to save their businesses,” she says.

Nonetheless, the Romanian project is on track: it has involved 178 companies and set up 75 synergies, reusing half a million tonnes of waste and saving 135 000 tonnes of CO2. Most of the waste is wood and sawdust, which is fed into heating and construction, and 2 500 hectares of forest have been saved as a result. The final aim is to involve 200 companies and get each to reduce polluting emissions to soil, water and air by 5 to 20% says Degeratu.

The main innovation from the UK has not been the idea of industrial symbiosis but the system which supports it. International Synergies pioneered the method of bringing together up to 60 people from different companies asking each to list the resources they have and want. Programme practitioners then identify mutually beneficial links or synergies between the companies using a range of techniques and support tools including a highly sophisticated software platform.

Commercialise and replicate

One of the biggest challenges ahead is funding. “It has been declining [in the UK],” says Laybourn. “But it’s difficult to move to a commercial model.” If companies had to pay to join, International Synergies would no longer be a neutral third party entrusted with commercially sensitive information, and there would be a risk of looking for synergies with the biggest economic benefit only.

In Romania and Hungary, the crunch point is just round the corner according to Laybourn; he hopes national governments will step up to the plate when LIFE+ funding ends. For Romania, there are options for domestic funds, says Degeratu, but they will require a lot of political support and lobbying to secure.

The second main challenge for Laybourn in the future is replication. Romania and Hungary – which is still just getting going – should only be the first. Slovakia has already cottoned on through Hungary and there is interest in Poland, France, Belgium and Greece. Further afield, there are trials underway in China, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey. “It’s quite easy to transfer the NISP model,” Laybourn believes. “Our model for transfer is capacity building – we train people in what we do and then we leave.”

Eventually, he hopes to see cross-border synergies. Europe-wide environmental laws mean businesses everywhere face similar constraints. In the UK, the next step is further embedding the programme into regional policy. The idea is that regional development agencies use the NISP model to exploit existing resources fully before planning investment in new ones. Why build waste disposal plants if your waste could be someone else’s feedstock?

In Romania, Degeratu is looking to innovations from the private sector. New synergies can create new businesses, as steam from a fertiliser factory in the UK helped create a greenhouse-based vegetable farm. Researchers have found that 70% of all synergies included innovation of some kind and a fifth involved new R&D.

The programme’s strength is also its greatest weakness, according to Laybourn: its cross-cutting nature does not match institutional structures. But experience to date shows that the funds pay off.

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