• Peter Watts
  • 27 November 2012

There is no landfill in nature

Nature works in an amazingly complex and cyclical way – when a plant or an animal dies, it provides food, either as a food plant or prey to another animal, or it rots down and provides nutrients to a whole cast of fungi, bacteria and other micro-organisms. There is no landfill in nature, at least not the kind where things go to waste. The study of industrial ecology is trying to apply this to the commercial world; how can businesses work to make the most of the opportunities provided to them from another’s waste? 

Little of what we waste is truly waste, and waste management problems are more an issue of a resource simply being in the wrong place. What prevents us from doing better is infrastructure, and being able to move things around more cheaply and readily to where they are needed. 

On a recent Workplace Law outing to a recycled paper mill, we encountered a good example of this. You can only recycle paper around eight to ten times – after this the fibres become too short to be able to be rolled out into sheets again. Rather than being burnt or landfilled, the fibres are distributed to local farmers who spread them on their land where they are an effective soil conditioner, helping boost agricultural yields whilst causing none of the pollution associated with chemical alternatives. 

This is an example of Industrial Ecology or Industrial Symbiosis – where you have material flows from one organisation to another – e.g. the waste stream from one business flows directly to where it is needed – resulting in net gains to both organisations.   

The UK has been quite forward thinking with this, with what is known as NISP – the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme – set up to encourage organisations to engage with each other and trade their by-products and wastes and turn costs into revenue. 

If you talk to anybody who works in this field you will hear about one case study in particular, and that is the network of symbiotic industrial activities that sprung up around the city of Kalundborg in Denmark.  

Kalundborg is a small industrial city of around 20,000 people and has been applying industrial symbiosis since the 1970s. Although the majority of industries were not seeing it as ‘industrial ecology’ or even a ‘green initiative’ it just made solid business sense to be able to trade waste and reduce their operational costs. Organisations clustered around Kalundborg include Nordisk (making industrial enzymes), fish farming, agriculture, a coal fired power station, Statoil (oil refinery), Gyproc (making plaster board) and many others.  

Waste flows traded include hot water and steam, calcium sulphate, biomass, fly ash and others. Examples being gypsum from the power station being used to make plasterboard, steam from the power station and refinery used to heat houses in the city of Kalundborg and for the fish farms and waste organic sludge from the enzyme manufacture used as an agricultural fertilizer. 

The principles for this can be applied even in commercial property / offices. For example WRAP (the Government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme) is currently undertaking an initiative looking at how waste flows from building fit-outs (such as excess furniture, cleaning chemicals, signage etc.) can be reused by other organisations – presently a great deal of material ends up in landfill. One of the examples of WRAP’s work in the FM sector is the project it undertook with Carillion where savings in excess of £200K were made by allowing other organisations to collect and reuse furniture and light fittings and diverting material from landfill. 

For something that makes clear business sense, especially with the escalating cost of landfill and the changing perspectives on waste in the UK, it will be interesting to see how far industrial symbiosis will be taken.