What is Industrial Symbiosis?

The principle behind industrial symbiosis is quite simple; instead of being thrown away or destroyed, surplus resources generated by an industrial process are captured then redirected for use as a ‘new’ input into another process by one or more other companies, providing a mutual benefit or symbiosis.

Put simply, industrial symbiosis challenges the business world to operate in the same way as the natural eco-system where everything has a place and function, and nothing goes to waste. Based on the experience of delivering NISP, a renewed definition for industrial symbiosis was accepted by the Journal of Industrial Ecology in 2012:

Industrial symbiosis engages diverse organisations in a network to foster eco-innovation and long-term culture change. Creating and sharing knowledge through the network yields mutually profitable transactions for novel sourcing of required inputs, value-added destinations for non-product outputs, and improved business and technical processes.

Lombardi, D. R. and Laybourn, P. (2012), Redefining Industrial Symbiosis. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 16: 28–37. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2011.00444.x

Opportunities for all resources

Although easy to focus on materials only when thinking about industrial symbiosis, the approach can be successfully applied to deal with other types of ‘resources.’  Using industrial symbiosis methods, for example, can identify reuse outlets for effluent or used water supplies as well as new potential energy streams as the two examples below illustrate.

Arla Foods, one of the UK’s leading dairy producers, uses substantial volumes of water on a daily basis for washing equipment, which subsequently becomes contaminated and not fit for much. Instead of simply flushing it down the drain, Arla looked at the issue and (with the help of NISP) was able to redirect the contaminated water to a nearby Severn Trent Water biogas plant where it is used as a ‘new’ input into the production process – industrial symbiosis in practice.

Elsewhere a nitrogen producer in the North East of England captures steam and CO2 generated as by-products of its manufacturing process. The steam is channeled to power a nearby vegetable plant and the CO2 reassigned and used to support the growth of fruits and vegetables within the plant.  This particular example has inspired a number of similar projects as far afield as the United States and Canada.

Applying this type of circular thinking can also help optimise the capacity of industrial assets and logistics. For example, if a company owns a warehouse that has excess capacity, it makes business sense to find another company to make use of the space.

Innovation

Unlocking the value embedded in under utilised industrial resources can sometimes be challenging. The process often involves more than merely brokering a link between two or more companies. Indeed many industrial symbiosis links or transactions are more complex than a simple exchange of resources. In many cases a ‘used’ resource requires some sort of treatment to make it fit for a new purpose. This may involve some sort of extraction process, shredding or other treatment.

In practice using industrial symbiosis as an approach to commercial operations – using, recovering and redirecting resources for reuse – results in resources remaining in productive use in the economy for longer. This in turn creates business opportunities, reduces demands on the earth’s resources, and provides a stepping-stone towards creating a circular economy.

The industrial symbiosis model devised and managed by International Synergies Limited is a facilitated model operating at the national scale in the United Kingdom, and at other scales around the world. International Synergies Limited has developed global expertise in IS, instigating programmes in Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, South Africa and Turkey, as well as the UK.