Industrial symbiosis opens a new economic era: competition and cooperation merge

Research | 2022-06-13

Today’s environmental and climate challenges require collaborative strategies in which symbiotic win-win solutions could prevail. In this context, the concept of industrial symbiosis, known from the eco-industrial clusters, becomes more and more relevant. Researcher Dr. Manuel E. Morales of the Kaunas University of Technology claims that nowadays industrial symbioses should be considered as social innovations in which sustainability and circular economy are the main keywords.

Mistrust of industrial economies

In modern times waste accumulation and pollution generated by technical progress and economic growth lead to mistrust of the development model of industrial economies. Therefore, in the past thirty years, the industrial economy concept has been structured around several fields of research, drawing inspiration from ecosystems and biological species in order to rethink industrial relations within a territory.

“Industrial symbioses demonstrate clear benefits that synergies and interactions between companies, public authorities, business associations, research institutions, and civil society could bring to the entire industrial ecosystem. Based on the concept of biophysical symbiotic exchanges, industrial symbiosis engages, as researchers Lovelady and El-Halwagi said, distinct entities in a collective approach looking for competitive advantage involving the physical exchange of materials, energy, water, and by-products”, says Dr. Manuel E. Morales, researcher at the Kaunas University of Technology School of Economics and Business in the ERA Chair “Industry 4.0 Impact on Management Practices and Economics” (further – “IN4ACT”) project.

The research made by KTU scholar under the project of “IN4ACT” shows that by working together, companies can offer a collective benefit greater than the sum of the individual ones expected from independent actions.

“Once undesirable residues of the production process, waste becomes economically viable products that can be reintegrated locally as resources in other production processes”, says Dr. Morales.

Minimizing the need for raw material

The main objective of industrial symbioses, according to the researcher of KTU, matches circular economy aims in terms of closing loops strategies and waste valorization.

The goal is for each industry to feed on the waste from its neighbors in order to minimize the need for raw materials and reduce the waste produced. Therefore, industrial symbiosis is not considered as an isolated environmental solution, but rather as part of a process of eco-efficiency improvement for individual companies and closing loop strategies for collective action.

“What is the recipe for success? A collaboration between partners who have different activities altogether with the importance of an economically viable solution, the geographical proximity between the participants, the desire to work together, shared values, and good communication between players”, says scholar.

The ideal example of industrial symbiosis, according to Dr. Morales is the one created in Kalundborg (Denmark) back in 1972.

“Developed locally as a new way of organizing production, it is the pioneering model of industrial ecology”, says Dr. Morales.

Symbiotic relationships emerged in each territory spontaneously and created different forms of coordination. Three possibilities for the exchange of resources are settled there: the reuse of products, infrastructure sharing, and the pool of services. The ten participating companies are linked by exchanges of waste, water, steam, heat, or other forms of residual energy, based on mutual contractual dependence.

Similar successful examples of industrial symbiosis, helping companies to save resources and reduce tons of CO2 emissions every month can be found in France, Belgium, China, Japan, Sweden, Australia, and many other countries.

The social side of industrial symbiosis

However, it is not only a question of collective organization built on synergies for the sake of getting economic benefit out of it, but it also offers enormous possibilities in terms of energy efficiency and reduction in the consumption of raw materials. Industrial symbiosis appears to be at the heart of the circular economy transition, mobilizing renewable energies, reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions, or even transforming waste into by-products.

By insisting on the fact that industrial symbioses are an essential driver for the transition to a circular economy, it is only a short step to imagine their impact on the industry of the future.

“Industrial symbiosis is part of a historical process of industrial change, which began in the 19th century with the mechanization and standardization of work and continued in the 20th century with the concept of industrial digitalization. The next step – and the societal challenge – is both to reinject people into industrial production, a challenge coined in the literature as Industry 5.0, and to lead industries towards a strong sustainability strategy, by using the circular economy”, says the researcher.

The transition from linear to circular paradigm makes it possible to consider industrial symbioses as a form of social innovation that can respond to various challenges, like positioning industry at the heart of sustainability, defining the industrial ecosystem at the local level, reintroducing industry into the urban ecosystem, introducing agricultural activities into symbioses, developing bioeconomy projects by linking materials, energy and information, turning CO2 into products, and much more.

Observations about industrial symbiosis made by Dr. Morales are a part of the “IN4ACT” project, implemented by the Kaunas University of Technology School of Economics and Business researchers and financed by the European Union project “Horizon 2020”. More about “IN4ACT”: