"Industrial symbiosis" is a grand name for something simple: one company using another’s waste for some useful purpose.
Examples: a nitrogen producer selling excess heat and CO2 to a greenhouse grower that is then able to increase yields and cut energy costs. Or, a construction company using discarded car tires to line a drainage ditch, avoiding fresh materials.
According to the backers of symbiosis—which is also known as "by-product synergy"—there are countless ways industry could work together productively, with enormous possible cost, and carbon emissions savings, and reductions in waste-to-landfill.
Over the last five years, the U.K.’s National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP)—the world’s most successful project of this nature—has facilitated over 1,000 such arrangements. In the process, it has saved 35 million metric tonnes of CO2, diverted 39 million metric tonnes of material from landfills, and generated sales of over $1 billion.
How? By bringing together companies that normally don’t talk with each other, according to Peter Laybourn, NISP’s founder.
"A lot of companies try to solve problems on their own, so they are not talking to anybody. When they do talk, it tends to be in their own industry, where people are trained the same way, and have the same experiences, issues, and problems. It’s only when you cross-fertilize that you get a sparking of ideas."
The NISP—which is funded by the British government—sees itself as a facilitator, organizing workshops where managers from normally distant industries can collaborate. Over typical two-hour sessions, Laybourn says 20 managers can sometimes generate 200 potential ideas, if they put their mind to it.
"It’s all based on the concept of bringing companies together from different sectors and trying to find out what opportunities there are between them, usually around resources: by-products, waste, energy, also water, expertise, and logistics," he says.
So far, up to 14,000 organizations have signed up, including many from outside the U.K.
Laybourn argues that, as a publicly funded group, the NISP can facilitate a larger number of deals than a commercial organization that may seek only those with the biggest financial and carbon payoffs.
In any case, he sees the public money less as a grant than an investment, which the government receives back in the shape of higher taxes. To safeguard itself, the government also requires that NISP hit certain targets for carbon reduction and diversion from landfills before getting its cash.
Laybourn says he was inspired to start his project several years ago after hearing about by-product synergy (BPS) programs developed by the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development. The USBCSD says it wants to develop projects in 20 cities by 2015, cutting 5 million tons of CO2, and diverting 5 million tons of landfill. Given a little funding, and the lessons from the U.K., it should be possible.