Industrial resources – unlocking their value

Founding member of the recently launched European Industrial Symbiosis Association (EUR-ISA), and this years 'Sustainability Leader' award winner, Peter Laybourn, explains how symbiotic partnerships can achieve wide-scale economic and environmental benefits.

The principle behind industrial symbiosis is simple; instead of being destroyed, undervalued as a by-product or sent to landfill, waste streams and other under-utilised resources generated by industrial processes are redirected for use by companies or organisations typically from different sectors, providing a mutual benefit or symbiosis.

Although easy to focus on materials, the real opportunities lie in applying the methodology in a wider, more holistic way. For example, through industrial symbiosis we can identify reuse outlets for effluent or used water supplies as well as potential energy streams. It also offers a means to optimise the capacity of industrial assets and logistics, increase the transfer of technology and create a demand pull on eco-innovation – increasing the productivity of all available resources, which in turn generates economic and environmental benefits for all concerned.

The approach sounds simple enough, however, unlocking the value embedded within underutilised industrial resources requires much more than brokering a transaction between two or more companies. While there are a number of different models of industrial symbiosis, to date, the facilitated model of industrial symbiosis is the most successful thanks to its ability to be applied at scale and to generate rapid results.

It is this facilitation element, combined with a cross sector engagement model, that is key to bringing together producers and users of waste resources with innovators and entrepreneurs, especially as most industrial symbiosis transactions occur between partners outside traditional supply chains.

The vast majority of the industrial symbiosis programmes we are associated with use this Public Private Partnership (PPP) model; public investment coupled with private sector delivery which drives rapid, wide-scale business engagement – thereby creating the win-win-win of economic, environmental and social benefits necessary for sustainability.

The availability of a small public investment minimises two of the largest barriers for business involvement in industrial symbiosis – time and money.

With no charge to participate (investment is used to support operations primarily) all businesses regardless of size, sector or bank balance, have the opportunity to get involved. Investment in specialist ‘facilitators’ also ensures the most innovative and sustainable opportunities for resource use are identified with residual materials driven as high up the value chain as possible.

These facilitators also act as trusted independents who help guide businesses through the various synergy stages from initial idea, through to implementation. There is much evidence to show that without this facilitation most opportunities are not even identified, never-mind realised; often because companies (especially SMEs and micros) cannot afford the time and lack the specific knowledge to make them happen.

Experience has also shown that although alternative models of industrial symbiosis delivery can work – they do so at much smaller scale and typically do not deliver the innovation, carbon reduction and social benefits of a public investment model.

To illustrate, at its peak in the UK the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) was actively working with 15,000 UK businesses, the majority of which were SMEs or micros – a difficult segment of industry to engage on the sustainability agenda given all the other pressures upon them. With such an extensive network of companies NISP successfully identified and closed out thousands of synergies collectively cutting the country’s carbon dioxide emissions by 42 million tonnes and redirecting over 48 million tonnes of ‘wasted resources’ from landfill. Nearly 20% of NISP synergies involved some form of innovation, many bringing new technologies to market in record time because of the demand-pull of the programme on eco-innovation. It also created/safeguarded over 10,000 jobs during a time of very difficult trading conditions including the financial crisis.

The experience of implementing NISP in the UK has enabled us to evolve the model for application around the world. China, for example, is in the process of implementing its third regional scale industrial symbiosis project with our support – the most recent being established in Jiangsu province. Both Brazil and Turkey also have established programmes and we have most recently begun work in Western Cape in South Africa, again building capacity to develop a programme based around the NISP model.

Across Europe, we are working with in-country partners to support implementation in, for example, Belgium, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Northern Ireland and Poland. Indeed, Europe is in the throes of embracing industrial symbiosis at scale; it is written as a policy recommendation within the European Commission’s Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe and subsequently championed as an approach for making immediate environmental and economic gains by the European Resource Efficiency Platform, a high-level working group set up by the Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potočnik.

The creation of EUR-ISA looks set to accelerate the implementation of industrial symbiosis at speed and scale with more than 10 established networks already working together to help support Europe’s move to a circular economy.

Because businesses achieve substantial gains through industrial symbiosis, some policy makers (who don’t understand the market externalities) believe companies themselves should pay; despite governments receiving more taxes from said businesses as a direct result of industrial symbiosis intervention making them more profitable. In the UK for example, Manchester Economics found that the UK government received between £6 and £9 in direct taxation for every £1 invested in NISP.

Removing public investment and asking businesses to pay, results in a rapid reduction in the number of companies willing and able to take part, especially SMEs and micros who are in need of most support in this area.

In England the modest investment for NISP is to finish in March 2014. Ironically, having pioneered industrial symbiosis back in 2005 through its support, the country looks set to fall behind the rest of Europe.

In Denmark for example, the Ministry of Business and Growth recently announced its intention to establish its own national industrial symbiosis programme with investment confirmed for the next three years. While our capacity building projects in Belgium, Finland, Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Italy and Turkey are looking for wider investment to progress from regional to national programmes.

Despite the withdrawal of investment for NISP in the UK, there is a lot to be positive about. Policymakers and regulators are beginning to integrate industrial symbiosis into spatial planning, economic development and sustainability policies. It is these very policies and regulations that help foster conditions that incentivise industrial symbiosis and resource-efficient behaviour by clarifying definitions and responsibilities, and providing predictability and reliability for companies to plan. I hope that it is now only a matter of time (and not a long time) before industrial symbiosis is adopted as mainstream policy and practice.

Peter Laybourn is chief executive of International Synergies

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