Turn Waste into Profit

"By-product synergy networks" and "industrial symbiosis" are not exactly catchy terms — but they describe an idea that's getting increasing interest in both the business and academic worlds. Simply put, the terms describe arrangements where groups of businesses look for ways to find synergies in their materials or energy use, by, say, using the byproducts of one company's industrial process as inputs in another company's production. For example, in one of a collection of short case studies compiled by the World Business Council for Sustainable Business Development, Gordon Forward, former CEO of Chaparral Steel, found that, when managers of a cement business and a steel company owned by the same parent began working to find synergies, they discovered that could use steel slag as a raw material in cement production — in the process increasing profits at both companies and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions.

Recent developments include the growth of the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme in the UK — a  nationally run program which in its first three years of operation reports saving member businesses more than £89.2 million while reducing carbon emissions in the UK by 4.4 million tonnes. Also, in 2006, Chicago launched a by-product synergy network. And, among academics, the fifth annual Industrial Symbiosis Research Symposium will take place this summer.

In an interesting speech at the National Academy of Science's Beckman Center in 2007, Forward described how the managers at the steel and cement plants began to think differently once they started considering synergies between the two businesses. Here are some new questions they came up with, according to Forward's presentation:

  • "What if we were witnessing business opportunity and not just cost reduction?
  • What if we began to speak in terms of 100% product instead of zero waste?....
  • What if every gram of raw material became product?
  • What if our so-called wastes weren't wastes at all, but were by-products or raw materials for other industries?"