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Cash for Industrial Trash

In industrial symbiosis, firms exchange materials, energy, water, and waste – and the benefits are often financial and environmental.

Uncovering the Potential of Industrial Symbiosis

In Britain, a fine china manufacturer broke the occasional plate as it turned out its plates and bowls. Instead of pitching broken crockery in the dumpster, the company sold the material to a nearby brick maker.

This is industrial symbiosis. In biology, symbiosis means a close association between different species, often benefiting each. In industrial symbiosis, the “species” are different companies, producing and using different materials. Nearby firms exchange materials, energy, water, and waste – and the benefits are often financial and environmental.

“Firms can often get cash for trash,” says Ray Paquin, professor at Concordia University and a leading scholar of industrial symbiosis. For their research, Paquin and colleagues Timo Busch and Suzanne Tilleman recently won the 2016 Research Impact on Practice Award, sponsored by NBS and the Academy of Management. The award recognizes research with important implications for managers.

Companies, and regions, are successful with symbiosis.

How do these exchanges between companies create benefits? In the fine china example, the brick maker pays less for the broken crockery than it would to get virgin clay, the usual input for bricks. The china is a higher-quality input than clay. And the china company gets money for its mistakes, instead of paying a disposal fee.

Paquin and colleagues have seen many examples of such mutual benefit. For example:

  • An ammonia manufacturer provided excess CO2 and steam heat to a nearby vegetable grower. The result: the vegetable grower built a 38-acre greenhouse and added 80 jobs, while the ammonia manufacturer reduced carbon emissions.

  • An animal processing plant sold animal renderings to a cement kiln. The processing firm reduced its landfill costs and added jobs, while the kiln had a cheaper, less carbon-intensive fuel.

These exchanges have broad benefits, Paquin explains. “There’s real money there, real environmental impact, and also a real approach for regional economic change.”

Paquin studied a British industrial symbiosis program for almost a decade, examining thousands of industrial symbiosis exchanges. He and his colleagues found that firms could benefit financially: reducing waste disposal costs by diverting materials from landfill, making money by selling specific byproducts, and potentially offering purchasing firms lower cost material inputs so that they saved as well. Firms also saw environmental benefits: reducing their landfill volumes and, often, carbon emissions as reprocessing and reusing others’ byproducts and wastes often had lower carbon impacts than comparable virgin materials.

Industrial symbiosis is all about the matchmaking.

Firms which can work together need to be connected. Definitions of trash and treasure vary by firm, so often the first step is to know what companies have to offer and what they can use when developing new exchanges. Some ways to get started:

Work with your waste management company. 

Your waste management company likely already reprocesses and resells at least some of your waste without telling you. Have the conversation and find out what’s possible.“It’s like talking with your cable company,” says Paquin. “You need to let them know you’re an informed customer, and make them work with you.”

Find additional ways to connect with other companies. 

Paquin recommends getting involved in initiatives that involve many companies. That is the most effective way to find matches, he explains. “You need a network – sheer quantity and diversity of firms and material resources increases possibilities for exchange.” Explore your local area to see what’s on offer. Many industrial symbiosis networks focus on a specific geographic region to make connections and exchanges easier. Some strategies:

  • Many organizations connect companies offering and requesting materials. Examples include Quebec-based Second Cycle and the Toronto area Partners in Project Green. Such organizations, sometimes called “waste brokers,” may have expertise in specific industries, industrial zones, or types of resources and can help you find exchange partners. They may be organized by industry, government, or even universities (see CTTEI in Quebec). “These are simply examples,” says Paquin. “They are everywhere.”

  • If you are up for a move: consider co-locating with other companies. Industrial symbiosis was first discovered in industrial parks, areas with multiple factories and industries in close proximity. Having other companies as neighbors makes it easier to discover exchange opportunities. Industrial parks also increasingly have staff whose job it is to make these matches, Paquin says.

It’s the most valuable practice people haven’t heard of.

Industrial symbiosis is spreading globally and will continue to grow as a way for firms to deal with pressing challenges. Here are some of the trends that will drive industrial symbiosis:

Increased restrictions how firms manage their resources. 

Firms in many places already face waste disposal restrictions and increased end-of-life producer responsibility for their products. The European Union has a directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and other electronics regulations. Canada has provincial electronic environmental fees. These requirements can feel burdensome. Yet our research shows that innovative firms can find new ways to be competitive through these regulatory changes.

Increased collaborative innovation. 

Firms are finding ways to work together, with mutually beneficial outcomes. Examples include new resource processing technologies and new business models based on the use of particular resources.

More data and more intelligent use of data.  

More detailed maps of regional resources will allow firms, industry associations, and even governments to better ‘see’ opportunities within a region or industry. These maps show types and volumes of resources. Today, waste streams are simply not well documented or analyzed. That’s changing.

Industrial symbiosis may be the most valuable emerging business practice people aren’t yet talking about. Yet it relates to many other hot topics. Sustainable business model innovation, collaborative consumption, shared economy and the circular economy all build on the underlying idea of collaboratively sharing, exchanging, and reprocessing otherwise undervalued resources. In other words, they all build on industrial symbiosis.

Find out more

These organizations practice industrial symbiosis and can offer assistance. Descriptions are taken from their websites.

  • CTTEI (Québec) The Centre de transfert technologique en écologie industrielle is dedicated to improving the performance of companies and communities by researching and developing innovative approaches and technologies in industrial ecology.

  • Second Cycle (Québec). Second Cycle offers a transaction network which post offers and demands of goods, furniture, used equipment, surplus materials, inventory surplus, production surplus and residual materials so they may be used again or recycled.

  • Partners in Project Green (Toronto). Their Material Exchange initiative is an online platform that facilitates the exchange of materials between organizations and service providers to divert resources from landfill, lower operating costs and promote the move towards a circular economy.

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  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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