Industrial symbiosis, or freecycle for business

Mining industrial waste before it spends years underground through industrial symbiosis
CC BY 2.0 Colin Gregory

My first question for Peter Laybourn, CEO of UK-based International Synergies Limited, is ‘aren’t you going to be out of a job soon?’ I am thinking -- after thirty years or more of focus on waste reuse, recycling, and minimization – surely industry has figured out the best ways to optimize inputs and outputs?

Laybourn chuckles. Clearly he is not worried yet. When he puts a diverse group of industry and business representatives together in a facilitated “mind mapping” exercise, participants quickly identify up to 300 pathways on which their wastes can become someone else’s raw materials.

Mind map from an facilitated industrial symbiosis exercise, showing links where a waste for one business could be useful to another

That is what he calls industrial symbiosis. The word sounds strange in the context of metal, paper, and construction debris rather than an ecological niche, so I look it up. Symbiosis: A relationship of mutual benefit or dependence. That pretty much fits what is happening globally as industrial symbiosis spreads, riding a wave of support for a process that has been chalking up visible successes: From start-up in 2005 through mid-2012 (numbers independently verified according to Laybourn):

  • €40 million (US$5.2 million) in public funds has attracted €374 million in private investment into projects identified by the industrial symbiosis process;
  • That combined investment netted €234 million of new income generated for industry; and
  • €243 million of costs saved by industry.

Sometimes the connections are obvious, although they might be neglected without the infrastructure to connect needs with surpluses. In one example, a building demolition in the same neighborhood was identified as a source of fill for a nearby construction project. The savings: in addition to reusing an existing material instead of mining and manufacturing new materials, transport-related carbon emissions were avoided. Other cases require a step-by-step path to push the waste generation statistics down towards the "zero waste" goal.

In addition to the mind mapping sessions, a technique that is now being taught to other organizations around the globe, Industrial Synergies has set up NISP, the National Industrial Symbiosis Program where businesses can directly register their needs or surpluses. Think of it as a sort of freecycle for business and industry.

Not all of the hundreds of potential connections identified in the facilitated group meeting can be realized. Typically after the open brainstorming session, the projects that look most likely to return of investment and most feasible get prioritized for follow-up action.

Interestingly, Laybourn notes that the USA is one of few countries that is not committing public funds to the effort, an aspect which brings more players to the table. In the USA, symbiosis remains the domain of consultants, paid by the industry they represent to find the sweet spot of waste minimization. Too bad, it looks like a model with a lot of potential, which should never be wasted.

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