What is industrial symbiosis?

Industrial symbiosis has become a popular term in recent years to describe industrial activities where a waste or by-product of one actor becomes a resource for another actor. But what do we mean when we talk about industrial symbiosis and where do we find it? Why are industrial symbioses becoming an increasingly salient issue in the field of industrial ecology and green growth, and what are the benefits that can be generated through this concept?

In nature, symbiosis is often defined as “any relationship between individuals of different species where both individuals benefit”. The symbiotic exchanges among different entities yield a collective benefit greater than the sum of individual benefits alone. Similar approaches can also be implemented in a human-made industrial setting. Interlinked with the concept of industrial ecology, industrial symbiosis is an innovative way to increase resource productivity and is one of the approaches to realise a circular economy (CE) and achieve green growth.

Industrial symbiosis is about saving money and reducing consumption by working together to maximise the outputs that can be generated from resources. It has many economic and environmental benefits. Firstly, it provides opportunities for existing companies—both private and public—to increase their profitability and competitiveness by reducing the cost of resources. Secondly, it presents substantial benefit to the environment by reducing demand for both materials and waste.

Let us take an example from Kalundborg, Denmark, which has operated since the 1970s and is often cited as the first working industrial symbiosis in the world. The primary partners in Kalundborg, including an oil refinery, a power station, a gypsum board facility, and a pharmaceutical company, share ground water, surface water, wastewater, steam, and fuel, and they also exchange a variety of by-products that become feedstocks in other processes. The benefits of the industrial symbiosis include low energy use, CO2 savings of about 250,000 tons per year, cuts of around 30% in water consumption and minimal waste for disposal.

A great example of the cost benefits generated through industrial symbiosis is the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) of the United Kingdom, which was launched in 2005. In the UK, national companies saw a clear financial benefit in engaging in industrial symbiosis activities. Consequently, during its first 7 years, companies participating in the NISP saved over €1.3 billion in costs, generated another €1.3 billion in additional sales and simultaneously produced environmental benefits, including saving 39 million tonnes of CO2.

Collectively engaging industries and companies has added value in terms of knowledge creation and exchange through the symbiotic networks, which can in turn generate mutually profitable transactions as well as improved business, technical processes and innovations.

Money talks. Industrial symbioses must primarily be built on economic gains and be based on the interest and engagement of businesses. Long-term economic gain is essential to the sustainability of industrial symbiosis activities as well as ensuring that such activities promote the emergence of new businesses and innovations.

One of the promoting factors for a successful industrial symbiosis is a comprehensive mapping of material flows and side-streams on the local and regional level to secure supplies and the necessary resource diversification. Moreover, mutual trust and shared ideologies between actors are among the key determinants in a symbiotic model.

Another crucial factor for increased industrial symbiosis activities is the development of long-term public support from the state and regional authorities for circular economy and industrial symbiosis, including comprehensive and coherent strategies supplemented with binding objectives, regulations, subsidies and other economic incentives. This can in turn help to ensure sufficient private funding for activities related to industrial symbiosis.

As the awareness, expertise and capacity required for the establishment of industrial symbiosis among potential actors might be weak, a development company, regional cluster or similar organisation can play a key role in facilitating and promoting industrial symbiosis. This role may include helping companies find relevant partners, identify new synergy opportunities and develop business plans.

A common model for organising industrial symbiosis is the so-called eco-industrial park, which is built especially for the purposes of symbiotic models and recycling. Although industrial symbiosis is often defined as a placebased approach, the geographic proximity associated with industrial symbiosis is not always necessary. An alternative approach is not to tie symbiosis to any particular location, but to base it on the needs and resources of a network of companies. However, it is worth noting that the profitability and sustainability elements of industrial symbiosis can in certain cases be repelled by the costs and emissions caused by long-distance transports.

Resource efficiency and circular economy are firmly embedded in the global agenda, and industrial symbioses are promoted by international organisations such as the United Nations and the OECD. At the same time, eco-industrial parks are being established worldwide. The European Union has recognised that industrial symbiosis has direct relevance not only to resource efficiency, but also to a broad policy agenda covering innovation, green growth and economic development. This same observation has also been made at national and regional levels in the Nordic countries.

Globally, the Nordic countries are among the frontrunners in sustainability and green growth. Given all the advantages that industrial symbiosis can bring about, it is no surprise that industrial symbiosis has gained attention as an important novel component in the Nordic green growth curricula. Both the Nordic regulative and institutional frameworks as well as the Nordic companies have recently shown increasing interest and devotion towards symbiotic activities and industrial ecology.

Essentially, industrial symbiosis can provide an important competitive advantage for the traditional Nordic largescale industries (e.g., paper and pulp, steel and manufacturing) that have been affected by the global economic downturn and industrial restructuration taking place in Europe and worldwide. Moreover, industrial symbiosis paves the way for the emergence of new and innovative businesses that take advantage of otherwise unused industrial flows.

The Nordic region already hosts numerous industrial symbioses and related national networks and associations. Owing to the Nordic tradition in both co-operation, sustainability and environmental awareness, the region has good preconditions for promoting and hosting industrial symbiosis in terms of industrial framework and business practices. This global competitive advantage is backed by the success stories of Nordic industrial symbioses, such as Kalundborg in Denmark and Blue Lagoon in Iceland, which is not only a spa and one of the most famous Icelandic tourist attractions, but also an inspiring and economically successful example of industrial symbiosis.

Industrial symbiosis activities are already occurring in all of the Nordic countries; however, there are substantial variations in each country’s approach. In Finland and Denmark, industrial symbiosis activities are stimulated through a top-down approach. This approach includes a clear vision, comprehensive strategies at both the national and regional levels, and active facilitation of industrial symbiosis exchanges by municipal and regional actors in partnership with key private companies. In contrast, industrial symbiosis initiatives in Iceland, Sweden and Norway are characterised by a bottom-up approach. In these countries, industrial symbiosis is largely absent from the policy agenda and development is instead driven by private companies and business parks.

Using industrial symbiosis, firms may create competitive advantages and improve their overall environmental and economic performance.

A key motivation for companies to engage in industrial symbiosis activities has been the desire to increase profitability and competitiveness. Business opportunities are the major driving force behind the development of industrial symbiosis.

An additional benefit for companies is that industrial symbiosis strengthens their environmental profiles, which can be an important advantage in the market as customers are becoming increasingly aware of sustainability aspects related to production processes and consumption.

The main identified hindrances to industrial symbiosis development are companies’ lack of time and resources to implement new business models such as industrial symbiosis, as well as a lack of industrial symbiosis expertise in the region and low awareness about the opportunities provided by industrial symbiosis. In this regard, the presence of a cluster, network or other co-ordinating body that can facilitate collaboration would help to organise exchanges between companies.

What is in it for companies? Industrial symbiosis can:

  • Reduce raw material and waste disposal costs
  • Generate new revenue from residues and by-products
  • Divert waste from landfill and reduce carbon emissions
  • Open up new business opportunities
  • Strengthen environmental profiles

This article is part of Nordregio News #1. 2016, read the entire issue here.

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