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News Apr 17, 2023

Industrial Symbiosis: A Feasible Solution to Sustainable Resource Management in the Water Sector?

Pilot innovation project shows opportunity to accelerate towards a truly circular economy.


What is industrial symbiosis?

There is increasing recognition and research within the water sector that recovery and reuse of waste materials can contribute to more resilient water systems, promote a circular economy, support net zero emission ambitions and aid positive environmental, economic and social outcomes influenced by water companies. Companies face a dilemma however around where to start and how to develop reuse strategies. In this a context, a best practice roadmap would be valuable.

Industrial symbiosis is the process by which wastes or by‐products of an industry or industrial process become the raw materials for another. It keeps resources in productive use for longer by using wasted resources (including waste, by-products, residues, energy, water, logistics, capacity, expertise, equipment and materials) within or between companies or sectors.

Effective industrial symbiosis:

  • Reduces the use of virgin materials and the associated cost and carbon implications of virgin material use.
  • Passes resources through the waste hierarchy, increasing their beneficial use and promoting a circular economy.
  • Aids the transition to a circular economy and promotes good practice and communication between industries.
Circular economy graphic

A circular economy approach enables prosperity and resilience while cutting greenhouse gas emissions, waste and pollution. Download full graphic below.

The project

Ofwat, the Water Services Regulation Authority for England and Wales, established an Innovation Fund to help grow the water sector’s capacity to innovate to enable it to better meet the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment. Through the Fund, Ofwat is hosting a series of innovation competitions that water companies, in partnerships with others, can enter.

Delivered through the Ofwat Innovation Fund, the project has looked at the feasibility of implementing industrial symbiosis within the water sector by applying an innovative digital cloud-based platform resource matching approach. A project team was formed comprising United Utilities as the lead water company representative, International Synergies as the industrial symbiosis subject matter specialists and Jacobs as domain knowledge specialists for circular economy in the water sector to explore a new way of using waste materials from one entity as the raw materials for another. The project team was further supported by water sector input from Dwr Cymru (Welsh Water) and Severn Trent Water, and in particular explored the potential sustainability benefits that could be realized through embedding the concept across capital delivery.

There are a number of major programs that have implemented a similar approach. For instance, the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) was implemented in the U.K. in 2003 and has since been replicated in 20 countries at national or regional level. Since 2020, the Dutch water cycle research institute, KWR, is working on implementing industrial symbiosis through the ULTIMATE  programme.

Scale of opportunity

This project has provided valuable insight into the potential scale of opportunity of adopting an industrial symbiosis approach in terms of reducing costs and delivering better value within the water sector. The project also highlighted some of the barriers and costs which need to be considered in the pathway for moving from business-as-usual material practices to an industrial symbiosis approach within United Utilities and the water sector more broadly.

A key project outcome  revealed the dependency on correct processes, procedures and business culture to fully embed an industrial symbiosis approach to bring about long-lasting, tangible change.

Potential for cost and carbon savings

The project team successfully trialed the proposed approach and methodology using 13 months of available data within capital delivery. The trial showcased the potential for embedding industrial symbiosis, including cost and carbon saving estimates for individual live projects. By collaborating with their supply chain partners United Utilities were able to adopt quickly on one project realizing approximately $67,000 (£55,000) financial efficiency.

It further showed the opportunity to yield a financial saving of $17 million (£14million)­ – equivalent to 1.92% of United Utilities’ overall Asset Management Period 7 (AMP 7) capital delivery budget[1] – and carbon emission savings of 100tCO2e that could contribute towards United Utilities’ net zero reporting and Science Based Targets initiative commitments to reduce carbon emissions.

Of course, a number of barriers were identified to realizing this full potential, for example regulatory, procurement procedures and availability of data. The project reported on each of these, along with potential mitigations that needed to be developed by the water sector and key stakeholders to address them.

United Utilities  discussed outputs with Severn Trent Water and Dwr Cymru/Welsh Water, as well as the material-sharing opportunities with the Environment Agency’s Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management projects in northwest England. Their feedback was considered in developing an implementation framework for industrial symbiosis across the water sector – both at present and in preparation for AMP8, which could provide a model for replication by other water companies.

Blueprint for a more sustainable approach

Industrial symbiosis offers an exciting opportunity to accelerate towards a truly circular economy. This project has successfully built new capacity and enabled better collaboration across the sector. It also demonstrated a realistic route to applying an industrial symbiosis approach for construction materials on capital delivery programs, showcasing opportunities to expand beyond construction materials to encompass nutrient and mineral resource sharing in water companies. The recommendations outlined a plan to expand industrial symbiosis as we look towards AMP8 and as technology advancements to recover value from bioresources mature.

Pilot projects like this are integral to demonstrating the viability of embedding a symbiotic approach, and can act as a sectoral blueprint to enhance resilience and deliver better value to society and the environment through a more sustainable approach to resource management.

Circular economy graphic

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