Industrial symbiosis

One company’s waste is another’s raw material

Dan Headrick
30 July 2018

3 min read

Industry and environment can co-exist, as eco-industrial parks have been demonstrating for more than 50 years. Recently, emerging economies, heightened environmental awareness and advanced digital technologies have created a surge in the development of industrial operations that seek balance with the world around them.

Half a century ago, in the tiny, 900-year-old Danish of Kalundborg, leaders worked out an agreement to build a 13 kilometer pipeline from Lake Tissø to carry untreated cooling water to a local oil refinery. That project led to another: take the refinery’s excess gas, which would have been flared into the atmosphere, and deliver it to a nearby plant for drying gypsum board.

Similar projects followed and, without realizing it, engineers, plant managers and community leaders created a new concept called Industrial Symbiosis. This concept coordinates industry, agriculture, communities and markets to recycle, and share resources, including waste, to improve efficiency, productivity and ecological sustainability.

The concept spread, and new kinds of collaborative efforts emerged. Today, these are generally referred to as eco-industrial parks (EIPs), where different companies running various operations cooperate with each other on shared property. This cooperation extends to government and local communities.

The result: companies operate more efficiently, resources are better managed and communities thrive economically while preserving clean air and safe water. One company’s waste is another’s raw material; resources are balanced in a circular economy: heat, water, waste, steam, gas, electricity, roads, rail lines, barges, pipelines, buildings, facilities management, emergency response, logistics, security, regulatory compliance, capital planning, and community engagement are coordinated.


The number of EIPs is spiking. In 2000, fewer than 50 existed; today, more than 250 are identified, according to a 2018 report from World Bank Group, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) called “An International Framework for Eco-Industrial Parks." Each is unique.

The Miramar EIP in El Salvador has about 500 employees from 11 different companies working in electronics assembly and plastics manufacturing. The Tianjin Economic Development Area site in northeastern China includes about 500,000 employees across 10,000 different companies on a single site that includes its own seaside port, schools, football stadium and residential areas.

Some EIPs are decades old and being retrofitted with green technologies for modern processes. Others are more recently minted. Some have developed at the community level, others through heavy government support. What they all have in common is a commitment to coordinate global operations for shared economic and environmental benefit.


In response to the rapid growth of EIPs, the World Bank Group, UNIDO and GIZ in December 2017 launched the first joint framework that defines minimum parameters for EIP performance. The framework was written because more governments and industries want to create their own EIPs.

“Governments are coming to us asking what an eco-industrial park is," said the World Bank Group’s Etienne Kechichian, a principal author of the report who leads the World Bank Group’s Climate Efficiency Industries effort. “Korea, Japan, China. Developing countries play a key role, and there is a lot of collaboration."

Dolf van der Kamp is manager of inspections within SITECH, a company that coordinates services for the sprawling Chemelot EIP in Geleen, Netherlands. Chemelot represents a collaboration of about 30 separate industrial companies that produce a variety of petro-chemical, specialty chemical and plastics products, coordinating a wide and complex range of operations to reduce raw materials usage, repurpose waste and maintain optimal operating efficiency.

Over time, different companies come and go, which adds to operational complexity. “Companies change, but product portfolios must stay compatible," van der Kamp said. “SITECH is not only a service organization; customers are also shareholders. We need very good alignment to work as efficiently as possible."


The explosion of digital tools and ever-faster data speeds make increasingly complex collaborative processes possible, said David Aitken, associate director of policy and innovation with The Carbon Trust, headquartered in London, contributing to the surge in EIPs.


The number of EIPs is spiking. According to the World Bank Group, United Nations Industrial Development Organization and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit 2000, fewer than 50 existed; in 2018, more than 250 are identified.

“The move to Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, is an important development and part of the reason for this growth," Aitken said. “New monitoring, communications and analytics technologies are emerging. These have the potential to improve industrial productivity and resource efficiency, which are key drivers for EIPs. Environmental protection, climate change and resource efficiency are making the imperatives for EIPs stronger."

For example, developments in modeling and simulation software make it possible for plant operators to create complex “virtual plants" that not only measure and monitor what’s happening in the actual plant but calculate process controls and what-if scenarios for planning, management and decision-making by plant operators.

Continually improving digital modeling and management tools also empower plant managers to meet increasingly strict and frequently changing regulatory requirements.

“It makes it easier to meet the requirements," said SITECH’s van der Kamp. “With so many companies working together, you can coordinate with government and international structures. If you have all stakeholders separate, this will be impossible."

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