By Ghali Egger
The need to shift to an economy that is circular and inclusive has become inevitable. At the same time there are a lot of hurdles which are hindering us from it and making this transition one of today’s greatest challenges. Among them for example there is the current linear economic model which does not value natural capital; this information does not flow with products and material down the value chain and that customers lack awareness, capacities and convenience to actively contribute to a Circular Economy.
Digital solutions like online platforms, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IoT) and blockchain are already used to support Circular Economy initiatives, but the potential is even greater. If adequately steered, data and digitally enabled solutions could contribute to a system-wide transition and further enhance connectivity and the sharing of information across the value chains; make products, processes and services more circular; and empower citizens and consumers to contribute to the transition.
For this reason, the transition to a Circular Economy and the digitalisation of the economy and society should be aligned in order to benefit the environment, society and economy.
One of the ways digitalisation can enable the Circular Economy transition is in the form of digital platforms that are used for industrial symbiosis. Industrial symbiosis is a powerful approach to accelerate and scale the Circular Economy by closing resource cycles and valuing materials that would otherwise be discarded. In fact, waste is not seen as waste any longer but as a resource at the wrong place. Materials that cannot be used anymore by a company, can constitute a secondary raw material for another company. The digital platform in turn, is enabling and facilitating the process of material exchange and data flow between the companies.
The expression “symbiosis” as per Marian R. Chertow is based on the notion of symbiotic biological relationships that normally occur in nature, where materials, supplies and energy are mutually beneficial, towards a concept of mutual aid. Similarly, industrial symbiosis consists of exchanges between different entities. By working together, companies aim for the greater collective good and can achieve win-win solutions.
Industrial symbiosis aims to create sustainable industrial ecosystems through cross-industry resource exchange and sharing on a regional level. These resources do not only refer to materials (by-products or waste), but encompass the exchange of all underutilized resources such as material, energy, logistic, capacities, space, expertise and knowledge.
Although platform-supported industrial symbiosis is considered a promising way to accelerate sustainable industrial development, the diffusion and maturity of both industrial symbiosis and its corresponding platforms are still low in practice.
This is due to the range of challenges that Industrial symbiosis and their corresponding platforms face. One of these challenges is that most platforms are only available to the developers and selected partners, but not to the public. This resulted in many tools and platforms which were no longer operational or have only been able to achieve a low spread.
Other problems are the lack of information infrastructure and social interaction opportunities, as well as insufficient functional support and accessibility shortfalls for example.
Moreover, the data collection, storage and transfer are difficult tasks from a procedural and technical point of view. Large amounts of heterogeneous data from different sources are required to identify possible synergies. Furthermore, many of the ICT tools used to establish Platforms for Industrial Symbiosis are criticized for focusing on functionality and missing out on social aspects, such as willingness, trust and cooperation that are important aspects to successfully implement Industrial Symbiosis mechanisms. Another point of criticism is that the tools often provide predefined transactions and functions which cannot be easily extended.
Despite all of these obstacles there is a range of industrial symbiosis platforms which is working in this important area. Below we are providing some examples.
Sfridoo, an Italian startup which operates in the waste management sector. It is helping businesses to find the best possible way to use their waste, scrap and leftover materials by connecting them to B2B through an innovative solution, the Sfridoo Surplus Management Marketplace – SMM. This marketplace is a cloud- based software which connects all the company resources in order to share assets and stock surplus that could still be used by other businesses.
Excess Materials Exchange (EME) is an online platform that enables companies to exchange excess materials with each other. To realize this EME uses a four step process which includes resources passports, tracking and tracing, valuation and matchmaking. The resource passport gives insights into the composition, the origin and the toxicity or deconstructability of the material or product while barcodes, QR codes and chips help with in the tracking process. At the end, material, product or waste stream are matched with a new high-value reuse option, by using a combination of AI and human expertise.
Another online platform which supports industrial symbiosis is BeCircle. It has a database containing all related activities, players infrastructures and local resources. The software enables users to visualise nearby industrial facilities, their materials, and water and energy stocks and flows in order to tap on potential synergies. After a flow analysis, highlighted synergy options are provided to the user and different scenarios can be developed and simulated. BeCircle can calculate both the environmental and economic performance of each scenario and compare them. In addition, the software can define the best location for facilitating the local integration of one activity.
The Swiss Re-think Resource has developed Circado, a cross-industrial trading platform for industrial side-streams, which promotes the upcycling of materials for new products of higher value.The software can account for fluctuations in production volume, quality or downtimes. Moreover, it allows users to get a market overview, find trading partners from all industries and track current price developments.
Industrial Symbiosis is a powerful approach to make our economy more circular. By applying it we are looking beyond the walls of our own company and are taking on a more systemic view in which we see the industry as an industrial ecosystem whose actors are tightly linked to one another and who can benefit from each other. We begin to see that the collective benefit is greater than the sum of individual benefits alone.
In addition, the depletion of virgin stocks will be mitigated and the amount of waste will be reduced. Furthermore, it will make our company more resilient against supply risks and allow us to have shorter supply chains for specific resources.
Although the concept is widely known its application and the use of digital platforms for its implementation is not widespread yet due to a range of challenges and obstacles. However, in order to accelerate the transition we need well established digital platforms which enable and facilitate data flow, are accessible and inclusive. Moreover, we need to share best practices and continue to raise awareness on industrial symbiosis and their corresponding digital platforms inside and outside companies.
Finally, we need to shift our mindset of competition to a mindset of collaboration. Collaboration across industries in order to achieve long-term positive impact, because the systemic change we need can only be reached collectively.