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Industrial Symbiosis in the EU policy landscape

European policies draw increasing attention on the potential role that industrial symbiosis (IS) could play in the transition to circularity and industry competitiveness in Europe. The European Green Deal sets up the framework to make IS a business-as-usual approach. While regional and local initiatives are already in motion attracting companies and SMEs to contribute to advancing local growth and competitiveness, European policy integrates IS in ongoing revisions of legislations covering the whole value chain.  

Secondary raw materials and by-products are quickly becoming a viable alternative to the use of virgin raw materials within IS. According to the industry-led CEN Workshop Agreement (2018), the term “industrial symbiosis” is defined as 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. IS has proven successful not only in diverting waste from landfill or incineration, but also in closing the resources loop and moving waste up the value chain.  

At a global scale, IS has been applied with recognised environmental, economic, and social benefits. For example, the highest number of IS initiatives in Asia can be found in China and Japan, mainly because of national policies on carbon dioxide emission reduction and national encouragement of circular economy practices. In North America, IS has been active since the 1970s, especially in the pharmaceutical sector. Cases of growing IS application have also been registered in Australia, Brazil, Morocco, and Algeria.  

At EU level, IS continues to be acknowledged in a wide range of Directives, Regulations and Strategies, such as the EU Waste Framework Directive, the Resource Efficient Europe Flagship Initiative under the Europe 2020 Strategy, the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), and more recently under the European Green Deal, the new CEAP 2020, and the 2020 New Industrial Strategy for Europe, aiming at providing a system transformation in policy as well as technology, production systems, finance, business models, skills, and citizen behaviour. 

Despite not having a dedicated action plan on IS, the EU actions consider the interlinkages between value chains. As such, the EU policy includes aspects that are either indirectly or directly support IS within pollution and waste, resource efficiency, material security aiming at reducing foreign dependency on certain raw materials, as well as including new areas of climate and environmental issues (e.g., climate adaption and mitigation), green employment and innovation, and eco-innovation.  

While EU policies give clear directions on how to engage into circular economy practices and contribute to the objective of climate neutrality, stakeholders’ attention is still too often focused on the priority of waste treatment (including recycling) and disposal rather than waste prevention and reutilisation. Moreover, the potential of IS for contributing to further cut of GHG emissions also depends on successful research, innovation, upscaling and deployment of green technologies, and a fully integrated industrial strategy underpinned by a strong governance framework. This will require addressing the R&I and financing challenges, fostering the creation of markets for climate neutral, circular products, and securing access to abundant, low-carbon energy, and non-energy sources at affordable prices. 

With regards to the national, regional, and local level, there is a growing number of examples of policies supporting the implementation of IS. In Denmark, the Kalundborg Symbiosis eco-industrial park has shown increasing progress since 1961, involving large energy and processing industrial companies and some pharma/medico and cleantech companies. The Nordic countries have devised national policy strategies on IS with examples such as SITRA National Roadmap for Circular Economy in Finland, and regional government initiatives, such as Sotenäs Industrial Symbiosis Network on the West coast of Sweden. National and regional support has paved the way for cross-border cooperation through networks such as the Nordic Industrial Symbiosis Network, bringing together industry clusters and research institutes in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.  

In Spain, ResiduRecurs.cat run by Catalonian Waste Agency and the General Council of the Chamber of Commerce is another interesting example of successful policy support to the uptake of industrial symbiosis provided through the creation of a public online platform, based on the concept of a marketplace, with the aim of promoting economic and business activity and company-to-company industrial reuse opportunities, waste reuse and recycling, competitiveness, internationalization and training on environmental issues.  

To foster the uptake of IS further it is important to overcome barriers such as non-harmonised regulatory framework at EU level, limited awareness and knowledge about the potential of IS, low focus on skills and capacity building, the lack of standardisation. There is a large demand from stakeholders of good practices or peer-reviews and of IS local facilitators, including exchange platforms that can provide matching services as well as identifying opportunities for establishing more synergies.