Industrial Symbiosis: One man's waste...

When it comes to being resource efficient, turning a waste stream into a resource is about as good as it gets, and always has been. Sometimes, though, it’s easier said than done. Rob Cole learns about the history and current challenges and opportunities for industrial symbiosis in the UK

Industrial symbiosis: One man's waste...
The process of industrial symbiosis

Numerous strategies have been developed in recent years to reduce the amount
 of waste we produce and its negative environmental consequences, as well as industrial society’s strain on the world’s natural resources. One such approach, based on the old saying ‘one man’s waste is another man’s treasure’, is industrial symbiosis.

WRAP, defines industrial symbiosis (IS) as a concept that seeks to create ‘an association between two or more industrial facilities or companies in which the wastes or byproducts of one become the raw materials for another’, thereby reducing waste and costs, as well as opening new revenue sources from byproducts, such as tyre shred, plastic pellets or waste streams.

Peter Laybourn, Chief Executive of the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP), which helped bring industrial symbiosis to the UK, explains that industrial symbiosis involves “cross-sector working across industries looking for business opportunities”, adding that it takes a holistic approach by looking beyond just waste and speaking of resources, which “can be waste materials, but can also be capacity, energy or expertise”.

Laybourn has been there from IS’s beginning in the UK, after learning about byproduct synergies in Mexico in 1999 and adapting that idea for the UK in the form of NISP, a national network for industry to share best practice, experience and expertise on how to address resource efficiency and create mutually-beneficial partnerships. He trialed NISP in three regions – the West Midlands, Scotland and Yorkshire and the Humber – in 2003, before landing funding from Defra to roll it out nationwide in 2005, which brought about plenty of tangible benefits.

He explains: “From 2005 to 2013 in the UK, we steamrollered ahead with it. We got fantastic results. Just in England, we got 47 million tonnes of landfill diversion, 42 million tonnes of CO2 reduction, and 45 million tonnes of materials recovered and reused, at the same time as cost-savings of over a billion pounds and 10,000 jobs. It was win-win-win where you can decouple economic growth from the environment, and it’s been a key component in the circular economy programme.”

The circular economy point is an important one. While Laybourn states that the original purpose of industrial symbiosis was not explicitly circular, it does have the effect of “giving options and building in additional resilience to the economy” when industry is “expressing and certainly has expressed some key concerns around material and resource security, particularly in an ever more unsettling geopolitical world, and there has been an awful lot of price volatility as well”.

A “no-brainer”

NISP, which was funded by the government between 2005 and 2013, has a free membership system and currently over 12,500 business members, 90 per cent of which are SMEs or micro-businesses. One such company that benefitted from the industrial symbiosis approach was engineering company BAM Nuttall Ltd.

NISP set up a partnership between the company 
and the McGrath Group while BAM was working on 
the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway scheme back in 2007/08. BAM was looking to source a material to fill the 40,000 cubic metres of space between the tracks of the 25-kilometre busway.

Seeking alternatives to drainage stone due to the sheer volume needed, BAM sought NISP’s help. Steve Caucutt, BAM’s Regional Environmental Advisor for the East of England, tells me: “We’d had previous contact with NISP, so we dealt fairly extensively with them, and we asked them to source large amounts of tyre shred. They’re the ones that came up with McGrath. It was after NISP’s help and input that we were able to source something outside our usual range.”

The resulting link provided BAM with 1.8 million tyres for the busway, and BAM also acquired an Environment Agency (EA) exemption for the beneficial use of waste. The partnership saw 60,000 tonnes of virgin materials saved, 6,120 tonnes of CO2 reductions, 1,440 tonnes
 of water saved, and cost savings “in the hundreds of thousands” of pounds. Tyre shred was particularly appropriate since it allowed grass to grow in it, further reducingnegative environmental impacts.

Industrial symbiosis: One man's waste...
Peter Laybourn, Chief Executive of International Synergies, receiving his Sustainability Leader award at the 2014 awards with David Baldock of and comedian Miles Jupp

Caucutt tells me that BAM has been involved in a number of similar projects since and is always looking for new opportunities. He highlights the importance of NISP as a facilitator, especially in looking beyond the construction industry and saving time sourcing new links: “It’s always helpful to have someone doing the work for you, and it’s a free service. It was a no-brainer!”

Going global

After establishing the programme in the UK, Laybourn set up International Synergies in 2007, an international industrial symbiosis network that now works in 30 countries around the world, including China, Australia, South Africa, and France. The NISP model gained such traction that it was made part of the EC’s ‘Roadmap for a Resource Efficient Europe’ and was identified as best practice in the European Waste Framework Directive.

Laybourn is pleased the model has taken off globally, especially since “it is a facilitated model that has caught on – institutions and particular people involved in economic development have realised that this kind of activity won’t happen on its own and needs facilitated help”.

The model has not only been replicated in developed countries, but also in developing countries, such as the six states included in a Switch Africa Green Programme. Laybourn says that, given these countries’ earlier stages of development, “they can adopt this kind of approach much earlier”, instead of retrofitting it on to developed economies, and can represent a “technology leapfrog”.

In Denmark, Kalundborg, a city of just 16,000, has become a poster child for industrial symbiosis, creating an industrial ecosystem that uses a commercial collaboration of public and private enterprises to create a closed system of resources. Waste bioethanol from the Inbicon biorefinery, for example, is used by energy company Statoil, which provides used cooling water to Danish energy giant DONG. The result of the development is a group of 11 companies turning 29 different waste streams into another company’s gold, with strong commercial benefits for everyone involved.

In Kalundborg, a large network of companies sharing waste products as resources has developed

Overcoming obstacles

The implementation of industrial symbiosis has not been without its challenges, for companies or those trying to extend its popularity, and we’re certainly seeing that in
the UK at the moment. In 2013, the government stopped funding NISP, “for the wrong reasons” says Laybourn, even though experts at Manchester Economics said industrial symbiosis had a cost-benefit ratio of between 32:1 and 53:1.

Laybourn explains that the government saw businesses doing well out of it and thought they should pay, “except they were ignoring all the market failures like timepoverty, pricing of externalities and information failure”. Without facilitation and help, he says it is unlikely that many SMEs are going to get on board with an industrial symbiosis approach, simply because they don’t have the time to source partnerships, and don’t know how to go about it in the first place. Developments in ICT, including a European initiative called Sharebox, are making it easier for SMEs to access information about IS, but the issue of time poverty will “still have to be addressed by feet on the ground, people meeting people, making introductions”, says Laybourn.

This article was taken from Issue 88

Since the UK government stopped its funding of NISP, it has had to fund itself, and after efforts to set up a commercial model (which Laybourn laments “failed abjectly”), is now focusing more on the international level. Despite these difficulties, Laybourn is optimistic about the future of industrial symbiosis in the UK. He 
feels that with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the government and companies may seek to reduce risk and build resilience into their working relationships, which industrial symbiosis can certainly do. He also feels that, with the potential of industrial symbiosis to reduce carbon emissions, spur innovation and facilitate cross-sector partnerships, there is a good chance that the government will make it a part of its new industrial strategy.

The government’s recently released green paper on the matter makes no specific mention of IS, though it does promise that the government ‘will work with stakeholders to explore opportunities to reduce raw material demand and waste in our energy and resource systems, and to promote well-functioning markets for secondary materials, and new disruptive business models that challenge inefficient practice’, so there’s clearly scope for it to come into the final strategy.

Certainly, industrial symbiosis has its champions – including the likes of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK
– which could help as it looks to inscribe that old saying in the article’s title firmly at the heart of industrial practice in the coming years. 

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