Industrial symbiosis: Collaborating to harness waste energy and materials for mutual benefit

Networks of companies worldwide are improving efficiency, saving costs and cutting their environmental impacts by partnering to share excess energy and resources

As businesses grapple with the challenge of decoupling growth from a heavy dependence on natural resources, forming networks and sharing knowledge are increasingly emerging as catalysts for innovation. In 21 industrial nations, networks of companies – often from unrelated sectors – are taking this one step further. By adopting the concept of industrial symbiosis, they are harnessing each other’s excess energy, resources and by-products for mutual benefit.

Seeking an alternative path to economic growth

Pushing Earth beyond its natural limits, coupled with resource scarcities, have been identified by many, including the former European Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potocnik, as a major obstacle to the future growth of all economies. In this context, identifying an alternative way forward is central to achieving low-carbon development, fostering energy security and climate action, and conserving raw material supplies.

The advocates for green growth continue to multiply. And with more businesses recognising the need to act on sustainability and governments pushing industry to innovate towards resource efficiency and job creation, there is a clear need for businesses to find new ways to accelerate the pace of innovation.

Enter industrial symbiosis (IS). In a nutshell, IS provides a pathway to improve resource efficiency. Importantly, it has strong potential to help achieve a low carbon, circular economy (where materials are continuously restored to use). For this reason, it has been included in the European Commission’s Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, with all 27 EU member states advised to implement IS initiatives.

Introducing industrial symbiosis

The concept of industrial symbiosis has evolved from the study of industrial ecology, which considers the web of materials and energy flowing through industrial systems. Industrial ecologists suggest that the industrial system can learn valuable lessons in efficiency by examining how materials and energy are used and recycled in nature. Industrial symbiosis applies this thinking specifically to interactions between companies.

Working together in a network, companies seek to gain competitive advantage through the exchange of materials, energy, water, waste or by-products, or the shared use of assets, logistics and expertise. In this way, they can increase operating efficiencies, save money and reduce their environmental impact. In addition to achieving ‘green growth’, many businesses participating in IS networks seize the opportunity to share knowledge, foster eco-innovation and long-term culture change.

Industrial symbiosis and renewables

“There is significant potential for industrial symbiosis to support the growth of the renewables industry and the uptake of renewable energy technologies in the mainstream,” says Peter Laybourn, chief executive of International Synergies, an IS protagonist that travels the world helping governments and businesses to form industrial symbiosis networks. “Firstly, tapping into companies’ excess organic waste streams gives the AD sector a substantial source of alternative feedstocks – often derived from unexpected sectors.”

“We’re seeing both private and public sector organisations seek technologies to help extract value from waste and create closed loop systems within their own four walls,” Laybourn continues. “Similarly, many food and hospitality businesses are also sending waste cooking oils to be converted into biodiesel. Beyond waste-to-energy, the wind turbine industry is beginning to explore IS as a means of sourcing raw materials for composites and carbon fibres.
“IS can also be an effective way to reduce costs and add value during both the construction and decommissioning phases of renewable energy projects,” he adds.

Accelerating the path to a circular economy

“Industrial symbiosis stands to revolutionise industry and help create the profound change we need in global economies,” says Laybourn. “It challenges businesses to operate in the same way as nature – where everything has a place and function, and nothing goes to waste,” he explains.

IS is often described as the ‘circular economy in action’ and is a proven tool for achieving ‘restorative’ industries, according to Laybourn, who is increasingly being asked to talk about the circular economy from an industrial symbiosis perspective. Most recently, he and his team have addressed the 2015 Global Green Business Summit in Mexico and the Global Green Growth Summit in Nairobi.

A recent resource efficiency policy discussion led by the Dynamix and POLFREE projects in Brussels concluded that fostering networking between businesses for knowledge-sharing, exchanging by-products and cascading energy and materials would be highly valuable to the circular economy agenda.

Industrial symbiosis in action

The UK’s National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP), founded by Laybourn in 2003, helps diverse organisations to forms a network to foster eco-innovation. The companies do not necessarily have to be in close geographical proximity, and the reason for taking action is often a commercial one.

“In our experience, members participate in a network with other organisations motivated by self-interest,” says Laybourn. “Few members are motivated by ecological impact, although that is often a result of their participation. They engage in IS transactions in the same way they would approach any other contract.”

The opportunities to improve competitiveness through IS are far broader than improved resource efficiency, Laybourn believes, and can lead even to progressive clean technologies being adopted by different industries, as well as improved efficiency and product and process innovations.

“Industrial symbiosis can help companies reduce raw material and waste disposal costs, earn new revenue from residues and by-products, divert waste from landfill and reduce carbon emissions,” he says. “It also opens up new business opportunities.”

Together, companies share knowledge and best practice, which yields mutually profitable outcomes in terms of identifying novel ways to source inputs and derive value from waste. For example, a UK nitrogen producer captures steam and CO2 generated as by-products of its manufacturing process and channels them to a nearby tomato grower’s 38-acre greenhouse. The steam heats the greenhouses and the CO2 supports the growth of fruit and vegetables. The synergy has created 80 new jobs and diverted over 12,500 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Growing crops cost-effectively is helping the tomato business to expand its production capacity.

The economic and environmental benefits generated by NISP have been recognised at an international level. In the UK, NISP has helped to reduce the UK’s CO2 equivalent emissions by 42m tonnes over eight years, redirect over 47m tonnes of ‘waste’ resources from landfill, and create 10,000 jobs, as well as delivering £1.1bn in cost savings. International Synergies has since supported the implementation of replica programmes in 21 countries. The most recent countries to adopt the NISP model include Egypt and France. Meanwhile, South Africa is the first country exploring the creation of a national IS strategy.

Scaling up

The future of industrial symbiosis is bright, Laybourn believes. Resource efficiency will be high on the agenda of the upcoming G7 summit, which is likely to help promote the uptake of industrial symbiosis. Further, the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office is supporting the development of a Global Industrial Symbiosis Programme (GISP) offering, with a pilot programme taking place later this year in Egypt, Sri Lanka and Peru.

“The opportunities for businesses to engage in IS are multiplying,” he concludes. “We expect to see growing engagement with the concept as more companies realise the benefit of this approach.”

AD plant partners with dairy producers to transform waste into energy

UK-based Greenville Energy has grown its anaerobic digestion business by forming mutually beneficial relationships with four local dairy producers. The founders were keen to find a way to power their farm by renewable energy, initially using organic farm waste. In order to maximise the capacity of the plant and obtain a steady flow of feedstock, Greenville sought the advice of the Industrial Symbiosis Service, Northern Ireland’s leading IS network with 1,400 members. Through the network, the company was introduced to suitable food producers in the region, including dairy businesses keen to find a cost-effective way to dispose of dairy effluent. Having established that the biological balance of the waste would be a good fit for its digester, Greenville set the partnerships in motion. The dairy companies pay a gate fee to dispose of the effluent, avoiding unsustainable alternatives such as land-spreading and rendering. Greenville has also invested in a transport service to fetch waste from its partners, creating a job for a local driver. Since 2012, the company has earned more than £250,000 through gate fees. Meanwhile, its dairy producer partners have saved a collective £55,000 in transport, disposal and rendering costs. Together, they have redirected nearly 8,500 tonnes of waste and created CO2 equivalent savings of 20,750 tonnes. Greenville has succeeded in powering its farm exclusively through renewable energy. Excess energy is sent to the national grid, generating additional income, while helping to power local homes and businesses. With a second anaerobic digestion plant in the pipeline, the company plans to continue scaling up its operations and creating value from waste.


Katharine Earley is a journalist and copywriter, specialising in sustainable business.




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