Every year, an estimated 11.2 billion tonnes of solid waste is collected worldwide (1).
According to the United Nations, failing to manage waste effectively has detrimental effects ranging from air, water, and soil contamination to the pollution of ecosystems, all of which create health risks, such as infection and disease. This article will explore industrial symbiosis as a potential solution to waste management, giving new meaning to trash becoming treasure. This subset of industrial ecology focuses on ways that waste can be reabsorbed back into the product life-cycle, thus diverting it from landfill.
The excessive waste that we produce, along with its negative externalities, is largely due to the linear system we have created for ourselves where waste is an inevitable output. Through circular models we can minimize and eliminate waste by keeping the products in use much longer or by allowing them to be repurposed (2).
Chertow defines industrial symbiosis as engaging “traditionally separate industries in a collective approach to competitive advantage involving physical exchange of materials, energy, water, and by-products. The keys to industrial symbiosis are collaboration and the synergistic possibilities offered by geographic proximity” (3). By partaking in industrial symbiosis, companies can make better use of planetary resources by having them live multiple lives that capture their embedded energy and utility.
Kalundborg – Eco-industrial Park
Kalundborg is the first documented instance of industrial symbiosis (4). At Kalundborg, organizations convene in one geographical location, organically, to trade resources (5). In this circumstance, one company’s waste becomes another’s raw input allowing resources to be redirected and reused, thus remaining productive contributors in the economy for much longer (5). In addition to sharing the management of energy, water and/or wastewater treatment, the companies also share transportation, landscaping and waste collection services (5).
Kalundborg has been cited worldwide as a model for how disparate parties can convene to optimize resources and reduce environmental impact. Surprisingly, what motivated this cooperative exchange was not environmental imperatives, but rather business imperatives due to cost savings (7).
As evidenced through Kalundborg, industrial symbiosis offers many business benefits beyond environmental impact. The park, which now includes 30 companies, saves $100 million USD annually (7). “Efficient use of resources and repurposing ‘waste’ “reduces costs and/or increases revenues, enhances long-term resource security by increasing its availability and aids companies that need to meet legal requirements mandating more efficient use of resources, reduced emissions or waste” (Chertow) (3).
Unplanned, cooperative co-locations such as Kalundborg offer multiple benefits to the private and public sector such as labor availability, access to capital, technological innovation, and infrastructure efficiency (3).
There have been numerous attempts to recreate the synergies at Kalundborg through planned eco-industrial parks, however, the majority resulted in failure (3). According to Chertow, the reason for this high failure rate is the forced exchange of resources that would not naturally occur in the absence of the planned park. “Attempts to plan “eco-industrial parks,” particularly from scratch, that involve significant material and energy exchanges have rarely come to fruition in a sustainable way”(6).
Chertow proposes that the way to scale industrial symbiosis is not through forced design, but rather by identifying and amplifying existing synergies that occur naturally between businesses.
Many companies that are currently partaking in industrial symbiosis on some scale may be unaware that they are actively practicing it, because their partnership may have developed on its own out of a business need or opportunity. In order to take full advantage and optimize these partnerships, there needs to be awareness and education on the topic of industrial symbiosis (6).
According to Chertow, three policy ideas are useful for government and business to move industrial symbiosis forward during different stages of discovery.
These are to:
bring to light kernels of cooperative activity that are still hidden;
assist the kernels that are taking shape; and
provide incentives to catalyze new kernels by identifying “precursors to symbiosis.”
By shifting their perspectives on the value of waste, companies can find ways to optimize it from a business and environmental stance. The path forward does not require predetermined planning, but awareness; people and organizations must look for opportunities and partnerships to better manage resources that can be further explored and grown on scale. Government policies should support these initiatives so that businesses are incentivized to capture these opportunities (3). “Economically and environmentally desirable symbiotic exchanges are all around us. Identifying and fostering emerging industrial ecosystems offers the promise of many environmental and other benefits” (Chertow) (3).
Toward the Circular Economy. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013, www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/Ellen-MacArthur-Foundation-Towards-the-Circular-Economy-vol.1.pdf.
Chertow, Marian R. “‘Uncovering’ Industrial Symbiosis.” Journal of Industrial Ecology, vol. 11, no. 1, 2008, pp. 11–30., doi:10.1162/jiec.2007.1110.
Singh, Neelabh. “Kalundborg – The World’s First Fully Functional Industrial Symbiosis.” Corporateecoforum.com, 29 Aug. 2016, www.corporateecoforum.com/kalundborg-worlds-first-fully-functional-industrial-symbiosis/#:~:text=Additionally%2C%20the%20approach%20enables%20businesses,productivity%20of%20all%20available%20resources.
“European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform.” Kalundborg Symbiosis: Six Decades of a Circular Approach to Production | European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/en/good-practices/kalundborg-symbiosis-six-decades-circular-approach-production.