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Environmental benefits of industrial symbiosis

“Industrial symbiosis is the use by one company or sector of underutilised resources broadly defined (including waste, by-products, residues, energy, water, logistics, capacity, expertise, equipment and materials) from another, with the result of keeping resources in productive use for longer” 2018 CEN Workshop Agreement 17354.

To enhance engagement with industry, facilitated industrial symbiosis (IS) programmes have quite rightly focussed on delivering economic benefits at the company level (cost reductions, additional sales, asset utilisation etc) as well as on the macro-economic benefits to the wider economy at regional or national level (jobs, tax revenues, total economic value added, etc). 

The industrial symbiosis ‘community’ has not done as well highlighting the concomitant environmental benefits and (briefly going back to the economics) that these environmental benefits are delivered at least cost compared to other approaches. As background conditions, such as the climate crisis bring about net zero ambitions, worldwide material shortages and material security cause increasing price volatility for industry, the environmental benefits of industrial symbiosis are increasingly becoming just as valuable to companies as the economic benefits.

So let us revisit the environmental benefits and how they are brought about through industrial symbiosis. 

A typical list of key performance indicators (KPIs) arising from industrial symbiosis transactions include:

  • reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through input, process, energy, disposal, and transport savings, as well as fuel substitution (the facilitated NISP® England delivered over 45 million tonnes of CO2-eq avoided for less than €1 per tonne*),
  • diverting waste from landfill,
  • averting the use of virgin materials,
  • reducing pollution to land, water, and air,
  • reducing industrial water use,
  • reducing hazardous waste, and
  • enhancing these impacts through dissemination of best practices and creating demand-led-innovation.

These benefits are best captured and reported through facilitated IS networks that have available to them sophisticated tools including carbon calculators (converting waste reduced, fuel substitutions, process improvements, reductions in transport, avoidance of virgin materials etc. into GHG equivalents), reporting tools, and techniques to respect company confidentialities whilst still robustly recording/validating impacts.

The Horizon 2020 project SHAREBOX (2015-2019) had the objective of developing a secure ICT platform (SHAREBOX) for the flexible management of shared process resources. As part of the project, facilitated industrial symbiosis networks were developed in 3 demonstration sites working with industrial partners.   Over the 4-year period, SHAREBOX partners delivered 1.34 Million tonnes of carbon savings, avoided 516kt of waste and 636k tonnes of virgin resources saved.  The same synergies delivered €14M cost savings and €54M additional revenue.

Challenges of implementing industrial symbiosis have not radically changed over the last 20 years as IS has become more widespread. The market failures remain about:

  • information (somewhat overcome by ICT solutions),
  • time poverty (particularly for micro, small and medium enterprises – MSMEs),
  • expertise (even if the information and time are available, there may be a lack of knowledge/expertise to pursue an opportunity)
  • lack of sustained public investment (market failure being the rationale for public sector investment) has been an issue in terms of sustainability and constraints (European funding often drives activity-based metrics at the expense of impact). 

What has changed over the last 20 years (and radically in the last few) is that planetary indicators of environmental health have become significantly worse (extraction of raw materials, water quality, climate crisis/global warming) leading to governmental and industry action and pledges around net zero.

The CircLean Network has the potential to leverage the potential of industrial symbiosis (through implementation) to make a significant contribution to achieve the above aims. By providing a robust and measurable set of environmental (and economic) indicators for industrial symbiosis across Europe the likelihood of uptake can only be increased. 

CircLean is tasked with developing a consistent reporting methodology for industrial symbiosis activity in the European Union. Proposed environmental impact indicators for resources in completed synergies address materials, water, energy and emissions. The indicators are designed to allow the most appropriate reporting: for example, rather than using landfill diversion for a metric, the tonnage raised through the waste hierarchy is seen as a more useful metric allowing for all resource starting points to be included. Relevant indicators include:

  • Waste processing avoided
  • Landfilling avoided
  • Toxic emissions avoided (per pollutant) in air and water
  • GHG emissions savings
  • Fraction of resource (energy, water, material) input sourced via industrial symbiosis transactions and output re-used via industrial symbiosis transactions

In summary the CircLean Network has the opportunity to bring industrial symbiosis into the mainstream across Europe’s businesses (and indeed other stakeholders such as development agencies and municipalities all of whom have a substantial impact on resource and energy use) with associated positive environmental impacts. Providing a safe space for companies to interact across sectors either on their own or within facilitated programmes.