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INDUSTRIAL SYMBIOSIS - At The Tipping Point

I was pleased to be invited to speak (virtually of course) at the 16th International Waste Management and Technology Conference in Beijing this year on the subject of industrial symbiosis (IS). Coming up with a title for the presentation left me scratching my head a bit… did I have anything new to say after over 20 years of talking about IS? I eventually landed on “Industrial Symbiosis At The Tipping Point”. It occurred to me that many ‘small’ things had occurred relatively recently that together were making a big difference - a notable evolution since devising NISP® (20th anniversary next year!). This reminded me of the Malcolm Gladwell (2000) book which defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” I do believe that for IS we have reached that tipping point and I’ve set out some of these ‘small things’ below.

  • Looking back at old presentations from 2005, the world map of IS activity included just 4 areas: UK (NISP®), Kalundborg (Denmark), Styria (Austria) and by-product synergy activity in Gulf of Mexico. That same map today for International Synergies’ activity alone has over 40 countries! and we know of additional programmes across the world that we have had no involvement in. Recent countries making strides in this area include Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia (KSA)s, Chile, Israel and Rwanda. Here in the UK, there has been a rekindling of interest with the launch of the UK Manufacturing Symbiosis Network Plus (UKMSN+) in 2019 and ongoing facilitated programmes in the West Midlands and Northern Ireland, plus a sector (water) led programme by United Utilities.

  • IS is being supported financially by many of the world’s institutions including the World Bank, UNEP, UNIDO, UNDP, ERDB, ADB, and the EC to name a few as well as receiving promotion from the OECD (2010) and the G7 (2015) and more recently from The International Resource Panel.

  • Similarly at the time of the birth of NISP® there was no IS enshrined in law/policy anywhere in the world -- now we see it across the EC (via the Circular Economy Package and the 2018 WFD amendments.), in Turkey’s INDC under the Paris agreement, in Israel and most recently in Washington State. Again, within the UK there has been the recent inclusion of IS at the national level in the Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy and the Waste Prevention Programme, as well as significant regional advances such as emanating from the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). In addition, there is progress being made on standards with the new business led European CircLean programme moving towards standardised reporting of IS.

  • IS ICT (Information Communication Technology) support tools are also coming on leaps and bounds to help practitioners / facilitators. Apart from our own SYNERGie® there are others coming to the market which are a vast improvement on the, let’s face it, multitude of well-intentioned but largely unused waste exchanges of the past which simply couldn’t deal with the complexities of industrial waste.

Having reached the tipping point doesn’t mean that the journey ahead will be plain sailing, unfortunately. There are still some gaps / hurdles before we achieve IS at scale and for it to be business as usual, but these are eminently surmountable. For example, IS doesn’t seem to attract many political (with a big ‘P’) champions, possibly because much of IS delivery is not visible in the way that wind farms, electric vehicles, and gigafactories are (which is a shame because on any kind of opportunity cost / cost benefit analysis evidence to date indicates that IS delivers greater benefits than many of these capital-intensive projects.) But even here things are changing --- in June, Birmingham City Council (BCC) Leader, Cllr Ian Ward spoke on industrial symbiosis at the Low Carbon City Mayor Dialogue alongside representatives from other major cities across the world as part of the 2021 International Energy Reform Forum. The Leader kindly focused on the long-standing relationship with International Synergies stemming back to 2002 and the birth of NISP®. He urged other cities to take a similar IS approach to help combat climate change and improve economic resilience.

In some quarters misperceptions linger about what IS is and the necessary conditions for it to take place (common misperceptions include the need for geographic proximity, trust, requirements for a new type of contracts, equity in benefits, IS being only for large companies etc. ) but these too are beginning to evaporate under the evidence. A big step in the right direction was the industry-led IS European pre-standard definition of IS in 2018 that provided a common understanding of IS that could be used by policymakers, businesses, practitioners, and academia alike. Apart from the understanding of IS itself there is also a growing realisation that facilitation is key to unlock the undoubted benefits of cross-sector working. As ever regulations could be more IS ‘friendly’, however, even within current regulatory regimes IS has been very successful particularly where the regulatory agency actively participates in the programme such as the Environment Agency did with NISP®.


Just to finish, I contend that we need IS more than ever, whether we talk about material scarcity / security, climate change or indeed post-Covid economic recovery. Just on climate change, all the horrendous weather events we have witnessed this year (from floods in Europe and China to fires in Canada and Turkey) prompted the Economist (2021 July 24th to 30th) front cover of “No safe place – The 3° C future”. The Washington Post (2021 August 5th) covered the weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and the potential for it to turn off abruptly with all the concomitant disastrous results. The New York Times (2021 August 9th) commented on this week’s disturbing IPCC report that it is too late for humans to prevent a much hotter future. IS is not a silver bullet (no one thing is), however, it has the characteristics of being affordable (actually, revenue generating!), we know we can do it well today (no long lead time or capital required) and it fosters further innovation (demand-led innovation to solve real industry problems whilst improving the environment and creating jobs) while addressing the critical Scope 3 emissions which for most sectors are much larger than Scopes 1&2. With the tipping point for IS (almost??) within our grasp, I do believe the next few years will see the approach go to scale across most countries in the world and not a moment too soon!


by Peter Laybourn

Chairman at International Synergies Ltd ~ global leaders in Industrial Symbiosis


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