Enabling the circular economy

16th April 2019

Our ever-increasing production and consumption are hitting ecological and resource limits. Our economic model needs a radical re-think. Greening Europe’s industry will require a change of consciousness.

New technologies and “circular economy” practices can help us do this, but first, we need to change our lifestyles and our perceptions of what is a ‘good’ goal regarding the environment. All parties must be made aware of how to become ‘positive ecosystem engineers’. This is key to finding creative ecological solutions and turning industrial processes into nature-friendly ones.

Industrial Symbiosis — an example of how industrial players have been ‘closing the loops’ in production processes
Industrial Symbiosis (IS) is a methodology for companies to adopt “circular economy” solutions by coming together, sharing resources and creating “IS synergies”. The goals of IS are to increase resource efficiency, minimise waste and create new business opportunities. The methodology is based on the idea that the waste, or by-products, from one company can become useful raw materials for another; or that raw materials, water or energy consumption can be optimised by cost-sharing or cooperating. 
Some of the first IS initiatives documented in Europe were started from the bottom up. For instance, in Kalundborg, Denmark, local companies were driven by the discovery that they can create more business opportunities in their own industrial processes by using by-products from neighbouring businesses. The companies organised themselves independently, developing a genuine ecosystem of IS synergies. However, outside Kalundborg, there is little evidence that such bottom-up IS initiatives are spreading. Where they have done so, they have spread in the EU through top-down support programmes, such as the UK’s National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) and several ‘eco industrial’ parks.

If IS is such a good idea, why is it not happening at scale?
Considering the amount of industrial waste that is produced in Europe, we see massive opportunities for IS initiatives in some sectors. Recycling of critical raw materials — such as batteries, solar panels and other renewable technologies — is one of the sectors with the most market potential. If we were able to find a use for the mountains of waste that are currently landfilled, we could save an estimated €72.7 billion across the EU (this is an indicative estimate, based on our own research, based on 2014 data).[1]

However, the added value that IS initiatives bring to industry is hard to demonstrate within the current fiscal and regulatory frameworks. Landfill bans and eco taxes act as a stimulus for picking “low-hanging fruits”, such as diverting waste from landfill, or re-using animal, food, or vegetable waste. However, simply increasing landfill taxes does not produce the expected effects in more complex IS projects, which develop much better forms of reusing waste and by-products.

More conditions need to be in place for companies to enter into higher added value IS synergies. Regulatory and systemic barriers that prevent IS from spreading include: the need to clarify standards for “by-products” at the EU level; the need for guidance for implementing the End of Waste Criteria and improving eco-design requirements for easier dismantling, reuse and recycling. These issues make it hard for some materials to be reintroduced back into the economic cycle.

The business case for IS initiatives is hampered by a number of other factors.
Aside from policy and regulatory difficulties, companies experience technological barriers to incorporating by-products into industrial processes — which is why an R&D or technological development cooperation often needs to be put in place.
Deeper knowledge of assessing particular material flows in industries, or of identifying different uses of by-products across industries, are also key for implementing IS; as are the improvement of technological capability, and awareness of technological advancements. The building of a user-friendly platform for knowledge sharing at the EU level would help in sharing experiences and offering peer support to IS facilitators.

Developing a better evidence base for IS is another crucial step for the future. There is a lack of monitoring and evaluation of most IS facilitation initiatives, with the exception of NISP (UK) and a few large-scale initiatives such as the Finnish IS System. There are some positive IS examples, but overall the scale of IS initiatives impact on the environment is not clear.

Cooperation across sectors is crucial for IS
A positive side-effect of Industrial Symbiosis is the opening up of innovation channels. IS often requires that companies change their production processes, or recognise the market for new products made from underutilised resources.

IS facilitators have started offering support to innovation processes in companies with the potential for IS; or support in finding financing. This can be done through the use of clusters, open innovation brokerages, transferring knowledge from R&D processes — all for the purpose of developing IS synergies which have a positive effect on both the environment and the individual company. For example, the Catalisti cluster in Flanders, Belgium, uses open innovation processes to develop public-private-academic cooperation on sustainable production processes. Many IS synergies created by NISP in the UK, needed an initial R&D phase before the IS transactions could be put into practice.

The opportunity of 3d printing
The new movements of decentralised digital fabrication (3D-printing), open source collaborations, democratised production through the Maker and FabLab workshops,  have the potential to increase cross-sector cooperation.

Fablab and Maker spaces are workshops, facilities or co-working centres offering entrepreneurs, students and other ‘makers’ access to state-of-the-art digital equipment to learn, experiment or produce specific objects. Their common principles revolve around cooperation, sharing and learning. They share a common principle with natural ecosystems –namely, the ability to share knowledge and cooperate freely, beyond the limits of an individual business or an industrial sector.
There are many examples of how low-cost fabrication designs, software and apps are freely available on websites and Wikis and used by manufacturers around the world; for example Open Source Ecology, Farm Hack and the Open Building Institutes.
Going a step further to imagine urban systems working in harmony, the Fab City Foundation has a mission to “produce and consume locally, while sharing knowledge globally”. Reusing, re-purposing and re-designing production processes, or products, to fit ecological needs, could be facilitated through such a network. A process like this would also lower costs and encourage more localised production. 


 Source: FabCity Foundation

Industrial Symbiosis solutions may come from unexpected sources, not necessarily the “usual suspects”. However, given the need to make the process a common practice across the EU, the essential first steps are to share knowledge, build capacity and remove the regulatory barriers.

Laura Roman works in Brussels with Technopolis on analysing innovation policies (including eco-innovation), supporting entrepreneurship and regional economic development.

[1] See Technopolis Group, UCL et al, 2018: Cooperation fostering Industrial Symbiosis: market potential, good practice and policy actions, a study for European Commission, DG GROW.