Industrial symbiosis – making a permanent difference in a temporary world


Industrial symbiosis.

Making a permanent difference in a temporary world


What can we, as an industry, learn from whisky distilleries in Scotland, road building in the East Midlands and an industrial park in Denmark? On the face of it, you wouldn’t think it would be much – but in fact, these are all excellent examples of industrial symbiosis in action.

Industrial symbiosis means that surplus resources generated by an industrial process are captured and then redirected for use as a new input into another process, providing a mutual benefit. The crucial difference between recycling and industrial symbiosis is the creation of benefits on both sides – “industrial symbiosis challenges the business world to operate in the same way as the natural eco-system where everything has a place and function, and nothing goes to waste”. This means that instead of viewing waste as a problem to be fixed, it becomes a potential source of value for another industry or business.

Industrial symbiosis is not new: for example, seventeenth century whisky producers in Scotland quickly realised that by reusing the oak casks that brought sherry to their ports from Spain, they had found a cheap source of an important raw material. It made no economic sense to send the casks back empty to be refilled, and oak was much in demand for ship-building in the UK and therefore very expensive: the additional benefits gained in terms of flavour were only discovered afterwards. Similarly, legislation passed in the USA in 1935 to protect the cooperage industry made it illegal to use bourbon casks more than once, effectively turning used bourbon casks into a waste stream, and meaning that a huge proportion of whisky in the UK (where casks can be reused as often as the wood will allow) is now aged in American oak casks.

The cornerstone of successful industrial symbiosis lies in these partnerships between industries. In the example above, the industries are closely aligned and the synergies easy to spot – but there are examples of symbiotic partnerships that bring together more disparate organisations, such as ceramics and construction.

Developing and maintaining these partnerships demands concerted effort on the part of the organisations involved, and sometimes additional infrastructure, as shown by the Kalundborg Industrial Park in Denmark. So can our industry, with its focus on temporary events in ever-changing locations, apply the principles of industrial symbiosis?

We believe it can be done. Our Chairman, Claire Menzies, has been a passionate advocate of minimising waste and improving the sustainability of events and exhibitions since witnessing the ‘build and burn’ approach that used to be the norm. As a result of this interest she serves as a non-executive director on the board of International Synergies, and was invited to join the Temporary Material committee of LOCOG, charged with helping to make London 2012 the first ever zero-waste-to-landfill Games. (ISO standard 20121 in Sustainable Event Management, which we are proud to hold, was based on the achievements and approach of the Games). 

“London 2012 was ground-breaking in its approach, in that while it primarily aimed to minimise the waste produced, it treated any unavoidable waste as a resource to be valued. This is a key principle of industrial symbiosis, and is instrumental in making sure that none of this valuable resource ends up in landfill.”

And that’s where we – as an industry – need to take the lead. On the whole, industrial symbiosis is a self-organising strategy, which requires organisations and individuals to be motivated and informed: studies have shown a lack of knowledge and a lack of resources are key barriers to industrial symbiosis initiatives.

Some outside intervention in the form of programmes such as NISP can be helpful to broker relationships, but it is still down to people and businesses to take action. And while our industry is characterised by temporary, impermanent installations, venues, stand designers and logistics suppliers can form the permanent relationships required, both inside and outside the industry, to create lasting change.

If it can be done for one of the biggest logistical operations to take place in peacetime in this country – London 2012 – it can certainly be done for conferences, symposia and meetings anywhere in the world.