The issue of circular economy is back on the agenda in Brussels this week, but one of the model’s core ideas – that one industry’s waste is another’s valuable resource – has existed for over forty years.
A good deal of the world’s diabetes medication comes from Novo Nordisk’s pharmaceutical factory in Kalundborg, an industrial area 100 kilometres west of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Electricity from DONG’s coal-fired power plant in the same area lights large parts of Region Zealand. The huge white-smoking pipes can be seen from afar and heavy trucks with trailers fill the roads like busy ants.
Statoil Refining Denmark, run by the Norwegian oil giant, refines crude oil out here. Enormous oil tankers bring the crude directly from the North Sea rigs into Kalundborg’s deep water harbour.
The industrial sites also house Paris-based Saint-Gobain Gyproc, which produces plasterboard.
It is all big business and heavy industry. But it is also the world’s first working industrial symbiosis.
Industries in the area have organised an efficient exchange of resources, ensuring that waste from one industry is not wasted but used as a valuable resource for another.
The industrial symbiosis fits the circular economy model, which the European Union says it aspires to. On Wednesday (21 October) environment commissioner Karmenu Vella is expected to discuss the results of a public consultation on the topic at a conference at the European Parliament.
“The origins of the industrial symbiosis here dates back to 1961, but nobody knew at the time it was a symbiosis. It was simply common sense and [it] has grown organically”, explains Mette Skovbjerg, head of Symbiosis Center Denmark.
It all began when Statoil wanted to build the refinery. There was much local concern because the processes would consume a lot of drinking water which was a limited resource in the area.
The solution was to build a pipeline and pump extra surface water from a lake 12 km away to the refinery.
“It was really the lack of resources that kicked it off. We don’t talk about waste here anymore – but we talk a lot about resources”, said Skovbjerg.
“The story goes that workers on Gyproc saw the “eternal” flame burning at the refinery every day on their way to work and thought that all the energy could be used to dry plaster plates. Back then in 1972 it was still not known that it was a symbiosis. The name came first in 1989″.
She offers a few examples.
The water used at Statoil’s refinery is passed on to DONG’s power plant that burns coal to make the steam that turns turbines and generates electricity.
The electricity is consumed in the wider region, while the steam is led further on to Novo Nordisk and the other industries in the symbiosis through pipes. They use it as cheap energy for their pharmaceutical and other production.
Another example: when the coal burns in DONG’s power plant, it releases sulfur dioxide, which is a major cause of acid rain.
It is mandatory for DONG to clean the smoke. But through the symbiosis cooperation it can sell the residue (gypsum) to Saint-Gobain Gyproc rather than it being a waste problem. Moreover, it saves Gyproc from importing and transporting gypsum and crushing it.
A huge network of large green steam pipelines connecting the industries in Kalundborg is the only visible sign of the symbiosis.
The companies make deals with each other on a private and strictly business basis, and save an estimated €80 million on the symbiosis, which also contributes to the companies’ green accounting.
The symbiosis reduces CO2 emissions by approximately 275,000 tons per year and saves about 3 million cubic meters of water annually.
The lower production costs also make the area so competitive there there is currently a local lack of specialised craftsmen.
“The industrial symbiosis does not cost the tax payers anything. The municipality is only facilitating the co-operation and acts as a secretariat for the association formed by the participating companies”, Mette Skovbjerg says.
Visitors from the entire world flock to the area to study the environmental perspectives and resource efficiency.
Just recently a group of 19 mayors from China’s Guangdong province passed by to study the industrial symbiosis.
“It’s a lot like in nature, where nothing goes to waste. It’s a way of thinking, like the circular economy model”, says Mette Skovbjerg.