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Behind Europe’s quest to scale industrial symbiosis

The European Union is putting considerable resources behind efforts to circularize resources and redefine the notion of waste.

Can an industrial system be retooled to produce zero waste?

The European Union recently has heavily invested in answering that question, funding a host of projects aimed at circularizing resource and energy flows across the continent. These projects center around promoting the practice of industrial symbiosis, a method of cooperation in which the wastes from one firm’s processes become the raw materials for another firm. Industrial symbiosis also can involve sharing infrastructure, services, logistics and other operational processes in a mutually beneficial relationship for both companies.

One EU project worth particular attention is SCALER (Scaling European Resources), an initiative aimed at facilitating the growth of industrial symbiosis in process industries across Europe. Over the next 2.5 years, the project aims to assess 1,000 potential industrial synergies, to support 30 regions in transitioning to industrial symbiosis practices and to reach 500 industrial sites.

"A large chunk of this project will be looking at understanding best practices in industrial symbiosis from all across Europe, comparing them, benchmarking them and creating a methodology for that assessment of what we consider ‘good’ industrial symbiosis," said Cliona Howie, business development lead at Climate-KIC Spain, a Europe-wide public-private partnership aimed at tackling climate change.

Climate-KIC Spain is one of five partners involved in SCALER, along with consultants Quantis and ISQ, startup accelerator Strane Innovation and the University of Cambridge.

With a program such as SCALER, industries across Europe soon may be connected in a vast network that cuts out industrial waste and freely shares energy-efficiency, resource-recovering and profit-gaining expertise. 

SCALER is among a number of industrial symbiosis projects recently funded through the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative, a massive R&D program with nearly $97 billion of funding available over seven years. The projects are aimed at finding new channels to stimulate uptake of circular economy practices across Europe — such as EPOS, a pan-European effort aimed at enabling cross-sectoral industrial symbiosis; or SHAREBOX, an initiative to develop a platform that manages shared process resources and provides real-time data to plant operators and production managers.

Initiatives such as these are part of a growing EU movement to create an expanded network of industrial byproduct exchanges, infrastructure and services sharing, and other forms of cooperation in a tangible effort towards shaping a circular economy. These projects are expanding the scope of industrial symbiosis activities across Europe. They are also redefining the definition of industrial symbiosis itself — from a local, geographically-based model to a larger, network-based framework.

From eco-industrial park to network

The roots of industrial symbiosis can be traced to the development of an industrial park in Kalundborg, Denmark, where novel reuses of waste attracted the worldwide attention of academia and industry alike. In 1961, various industries in the park began exchanging byproducts and sharing infrastructure, forming what has come to be known as the world’s first "eco-industrial park." Today, almost 30 byproduct exchanges can be counted between its tenants, and the model drastically has reduced greenhouse gas emissions and resource usage, while also providing immense cost savings for the industries in the park.

While many of today’s industrial symbiosis activities are observed primarily in eco-industrial parks such as Kalundborg, the idea is more often being organized into a "facilitated" approach, where a third party helps incorporate existing businesses into a symbiotic network.

industrial symbiosis
Maggie Xiao Yan Jiang Lund, senior project manager at the Denmark Symbiosis Center, which is providing consultancy to SCALER, affirmed that there is an increasing movement to incorporate existing businesses into a network and to standardize a broad new definition of industrial symbiosis. "A lot of stakeholders are already saying they wish there would be a network, nationally and internationally," she said.

In order to achieve industrial symbiosis on a macro level, the idea of Kalundborg must be stretched much wider, particularly by including small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) and other types of businesses not typically included in an industrial park, Howie added.

"There are very important medium-sized industrial companies that don’t enter into the whole Kalundborg picture — for example, as solution providers, or as waste generators themselves — where a lot of positive impact can be achieved," she said.

New policies, new language

Taking that broader viewpoint, however, has its own challenges. "If you have a waste and want to sell it to a potential user, then according to the European regulations you need to classify it as being a waste, and that also involves a lot of bureaucracy, and sometimes the national entities that are responsible for doing that have some difficulties because they don’t know what is exactly waste," said Marco Estrela, heading up ISQ’s project coordination of SCALER.

Facilitating exchanges over a wider scale also will require expanding the knowledge base of exchanges available to companies. Estrela added that there is still a lack of knowledge about how some wastes can be used, and what kind of processes they require to be reused, so a centralized knowledge base will be critical to increasing technical knowledge.

"One company has to be speaking the same language as another company. To say, 'Yes, I can trade you these oranges for these apples, because we both agree that these are oranges and those are apples,'" Howie added.

A lot of stakeholders are already saying they wish there would be a network, nationally and internationally.
One of the first examples of the facilitated approach to industrial symbiosis was the National Industrial Symbiosis Program (NISP), which first ran in the United Kingdom from 2005 to 2013. NISP was a government-funded project that facilitated a diverse national network of industrial symbiosis partners. The model pioneered an approach that eliminated barriers to entry for businesses, and included both large industries and SMEs alike in a geographically dispersed network. Over the eight years of the program’s run in the U.K., NISP not only reduced industrial carbon emissions by 42 million tons and saved 60 million tons of virgin materials, it also achieved cost savings of $1.46 billion and created over $1.41 billion in additional sales.

"The idea was one, to make it a public sector model, to get the network much greater, and secondly to make it more holistic in terms of being able to deal with not only just materials, but energy, water, expertise, assets, logistics, etcetera," said Peter Laybourn, founder of International Synergies, the company that brought the idea of NISP to the U.K. government and oversaw its rollout.

Contrary to the writings of many academics at the time, Laybourn said that in practice, they found that geographical proximity of industries was not an important factor for determining exchanges, except in specific cases such as sharing waste heat. "Even very bulky construction materials can be shipped or delivered many hundreds of kilometers, and still have an environmental benefit in terms of carbon," he said.

Working toward a standard approach

The success of programs such as NISP greatly can benefit from the identification and standardization of industrial symbiosis best practices, Laybourn added.

International Synergies is working with a vast team of international partners to move towards developing an ISO standard for industrial symbiosis, which could be used as a worldwide benchmark for industrial symbiosis practices.

In fact, a main focus of SCALER is also finding a standardized definition of best practices. A consistent definition of what comprises industrial symbiosis is critical for expanding the practice not only in Europe, but for other regions seeking to adopt a large-scale network, experts believe. But it must be loose enough to allow for innovation.

"You cannot repeat symbiosis, like [bring] Kalundborg symbiosis to another place," Lund said. "That’s also a challenge when you work with symbiosis. It’s unique every time. So what we need to replicate is that mindset." 

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