Chain reaction

One man's rubbish is another man's treasure. Or so the saying goes. But what if the two men (or women) in question work in different sectors? Well, traditionally, the transformation between trash and treasure would never take place. But that's where the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (or Nisp, to give it its snappier title) comes in.

Nisp is run by director Peter Laybourn. It has only been around for 18 months, but it claims to have saved UK business around £48M in that time. So, how did they do it? And more importantly, how can your business join the industrial symbiosis revolution? I met up with Peter at the government-backed organisation’s headquarters in a slightly dilapidated area of Birmingham.

He tells me that Nisp “draws on the ecological metaphor of symbiosis, where different types of organisms have mutual benefits”.

“Nisp is all about looking at the opportunities that companies are missing by not co-ordinating in a cross-sector way. Businesses are doing a lot both internally and within sectors, but not across sectors,” he says.

The concept for Nisp grew out of Peter’s 1999 trip to the US, where he learned about the bi-product synergy programme operated by the US Business Council for Sustainable Development. “But I didn’t see that model suiting the UK because it was asking companies to pay money up-front,” he says. “I saw that as a barrier to the diversity I wanted in the programme.”

Peter knew that the model needed some tweaking before he brought it home and the public-funding route seemed a sensible option. “It was a struggle getting funding initially because industrial symbiosis (IS) is totally holistic. Government funding sources tend to be put in pigeon holes and its hard to break through that.”

And that’s the beauty of Nisp. It isn’t just a waste programme. It isn’t just an energy programme. And it isn’t just a business opportunity programme. No. It’s all of these things – impossible to pigeon hole.

The programme has evolved from a sub-regional operation to a full-blown, nationwide initiative. “We started off in the Humberside, West Midlands and Scotland. But funding from Defra’s business resource efficiency and waste (Brew) programme enabled us to go national.”

By not asking businesses to part with cash, Nisp can act as totally independent facilitators. And there’s also the issue of the disclosure of information. “We’re actually asking for lots of information about the companies. As soon as they think we’ve got a commercial interest, information tends to dry up.”

So, what does Nisp do exactly? Well, to give you an example, what do a large chemical company and a fruit and vegetable grower have in common? Not a lot, to be honest, other than the fact that the two firms in question are both based in the North-east, have been working with Nisp, and have been benefiting enormously from the collaboration.

Terra Nitrogen, a producer of nitrogen products and methanol, was looking for alternative ways to use its by-products – namely carbon dioxide. Enter John Baarda Limited, a small market gardener, whose new £12M greenhouse will grow 300,000 tomatoes a year. And they’ll use the CO2 produced by Terra’s nearby manufacturing plant, while the steam is used to heat the greenhouses.

So, there’s been a huge reduction of carbon dioxide (some 12,500 tonnes a year), a successful reuse of 45,000 tonnes of waste steam, £15M of private investment in the region and 65 new jobs created. And none of this would have been possible without innovative cross-sector working, orchestrated by Nisp. “It’s a nice example for me because it involves my home town of Billingham,” Peter says.

“It was the home town of ICI and heavy industry, and now it’s the centre of tomato growing in Europe. At this time of year, we’d normally be importing tomatoes from Spain but now they are home grown, so we are saving on food-miles as well.”

Meanwhile, another initiative in the North-east involved waste management firm JWS Recycling trying to find an outlet for 10,000 tonnes of recycled wood a year. UK Wood Recycling got involved – a company which has helped to divert tonnes of waste wood from local landfill, reduced CO2 emissions by over 20,000 tonnes a year and generated £84,000 in additional sales.

With 6,000 companies all signed up to the programme, it’s certainly a busy time for those involved in the scheme. In fact, during my visit to their office, there is talk of moving the organisation to bigger premises. The success so far seems to be down to the effective model that Peter and his team have put in place.

“We try to have a long-term relationship with a company so that we can catch them at a point in their business cycle when they are open to this type of activity, so they might be doing a refurb or making some investment decisions,” he says.

“If we keep with them over a protracted period and get to know them, they get to trust us a bit more. And we can have a much better-quality engagement, rather than going in and doing a quick audit.”

Before Nisp came along, companies had no way of engaging with other sectors.

Responsible companies would do what they could within their firms, and would use their trade association to exchange ideas with other similarly operating businesses. But these associations never dovetailed with other associations.

This has all changed now, and innovation is coming to the fore thanks to effective cross-sector communication and working. “We’ve just had a report published by Birmingham University,” Peter tells me. “They looked at 120 cases that we’ve been involved in.

Around 70% of those showed innovation, 50% used best available technology – so it’s not about doing the bog-standard staff, it’s about innovation.”

But it’s also about a culture change. It’s about businesses realising that economic growth and environmental protection go hand in hand. And if we get to that point here in the UK, will there still be a need for an organisation like Nisp? “There will always be a role for an independent facilitator because businesses are under so much pressure to deliver their core product,” he says.

And it’s this independence that has served the programme well in its infancy. That, and its responsive nature, says Peter. “If you contrast Nisp with other programmes for industry in this field – it would be designed. It would be deciding what’s best for industry and asking industry to accept that.

“We work in exactly the opposite way. We engage with industry, find out what their concerns are and then facilitate. We are responsive and demand-led rather than deciding what’s good for business.

“Market conditions will always change, regulations will always change, and by being responsive we will always be relevant.”

Nisp has been such a success that Peter is now helping to deliver the programme to the US. They’ve also hosted delegations from China, Korea and Japan. It’s certainly raised a lot of interest on the international arena. “We’ve just been invited by Defra to manage their sustainable development dialogue programme in China. Nisp is the only national project of its type in the whole world.” Meanwhile, the European Commission has cited the programme as a European exemplar of eco-innovation.

From the outside, IS seems like a no-brainer. So, why hasn’t this sort of thing been done before? Because it’s hard work, says Peters. “The concept remains incredibly simple. You get people from different sectors together and something happens.

“But it’s actually quite hard to do. In the past, most attempts have been on a small geographical basis, which has been quite limiting. By opening it up to a national programme, you can identify particular problems in the South-west, and fashion a solution in the West Midlands, and deliver outputs in the North-west. It’s that connectivity that has been missing and that’s what Nisp has done.”

The culture change Peter mentions is what will drive the long-term future of the world in the long term. By getting involved in programmes like Nisp, businesses will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and become more productive and competitive.

But what about the future of Nisp? With Brew funding running dry in 2008, Peter is fairly confident his organisation will continue to grow. “The current model works well,” he says.

“We have looked at other models – particularly the American one where companies pay up front, and it hasn’t really taken off.

“You could argue whether its an environmental tax, but companies are paying for us anyway through the landfill tax. So, its kind of recirculating that money. And the Exchequer is getting a superb return on it.

“In the first 18 months, we’ve saved companies around £48M. The government is getting a really good deal on this – and that’s before you even get into the environmental benefits.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie