NISP - the symbiotic network

12th November 2012


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Despite the removal of government funding, the future of the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme remains bright. Peter Brown reports

The National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) has been proving that one company’s waste is another’s valuable resource since 2005, as the concept of industrial symbiosis (IS) has increasingly come to the attention of policymakers and business leaders.

The principles are straightforward. Instead of being destroyed or sent to landfill, the waste streams from one industry are diverted as resources to another. It’s a simple, environmentally sustainable way for businesses to cut waste disposal costs and generate revenue.

Pole position

The European Commission’s 2011 roadmap to a resource efficient Europe calls for a more widespread implementation of IS as a necessary step on the path to sustainable economic growth. The UK has a headstart here as NISP is the world’s first national IS network.

Since it started, NISP has put into action thousands of waste synergies between its 15,000 member businesses, resulting in the reuse of over 38 million tonnes of materials previously thought of as waste.

More than 71 million tonnes of industrial water have also been saved, and the impact on businesses has been significant as well. Deals done as a result of NISP’s work have saved UK firms at least £1 billion and generated £993 million in sales. Additionally, thousands of jobs have been created as companies find new ways to work with each other in IS partnerships.

Given these positive results, it may seem surprising that the UK government has withdrawn funding for NISP, forcing the programme to move to a subscription-based model from September 2012. It remains to be seen what impact this will have on the programme’s capabilities, but chief executive Peter Laybourn is keen to emphasise the potential upside of the change.

“Although we were grateful for government investment, it came with various caveats,” he explains. “They started saying which industries we could work with, and which materials, which is almost the opposite of what IS is trying to do. We try to have an open-house policy, giving support to companies of all sizes and all materials.”

According to Laybourn, central to NISP’s effectiveness is its network effect, the way it enables businesses to share success stories and best practice. “I think that’s a real attraction,” he says, “because one of the basic principles of IS is bringing diverse organisations together. What is new technology to one company might be old hat to another. Getting that cross-sector fertilisation is one of the key points of the programme, always has been and always will be.”

Building partnerships

That fertilisation took on a literal form in an example of IS from northeast England, whereby NISP brought together international nitrogen producer Terra Nitrogen and a small-scale vegetable grower. Terra Nitrogen generates more than 12,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year as a result of its ammonia manufacturing process. NISP practitioners spotted a synergy with local farming business John Baarda, which wanted to experiment with growing tomatoes during the winter.

The NISP solution involves the redeployment of waste streams from Terra Nitrogen as power sources for John Baarda’s greenhouse complex, where 300,000 tomato plants are cultivated for Sainsbury’s.

The carbon dioxide, a useful ingredient for plant growth, is pumped in and boosts tomato production by up to 50%, while other waste is converted to hot water and used to heat the 38-acre complex. Not only does this mean the reuse of two waste streams, which would otherwise be discharged as emissions, but the scheme has also created 80 jobs.

The marriage of sustainability with profitability is again evident in a NISP-initiated synergy for printing solutions and manufacturing company Ricoh.

Ricoh generates about eight tonnes of toner waste every month and, until NISP found an alternative solution, spent £800 disposing of each tonne. The waste stream needed to be dealt with under Ricoh’s zero-waste-to-landfill policy, which, as environment officer Andy Whyle explains, was proving difficult.

“We couldn’t find a sustainable option,” he says. “We did our own investigations, we looked at working with start-ups to help them develop a process, and nothing was really sustainable until we got in touch with NISP, and they basically halved the cost for us.”

The solution proposed by NISP practitioners involved transporting Ricoh’s toner waste to a plant in Rotterdam where it is used in a pyrolysis chemical process, the waste products of which are used in concrete production. The solution provider that NISP found to manage the process is a logistics company based just a few miles from Ricoh’s UK factory. Even though the two businesses were almost neighbours, it took a NISP practitioner to bring them together.

For Whyle, it’s that broad perspective, combined with a solid grounding in industrial practicalities, that is the key to the value of NISP’s work. “It’s the NISP practitioners’ knowledge base, the way they can understand how the relevant processes work and then align that with a solution provider – not necessarily in the UK,” he says.

Whyle at Ricoh believes that IS has the potential to transform the ways firms think about waste. “You can use the approach and once you’ve learned it, there are a lot of solutions you can find for yourself,” he argues. “For me, NISP is there to handle the not-so-easy waste streams. The ones you generate the most – your packaging, your cardboard – they’re quite easy, but when you come to difficult solvents and hazardous waste materials, that’s where NISP comes in.”

Likewise DENSO, a Telford-based manufacturer of air conditioning units and engine cooling systems. It generates 15 tonnes annually of potassium aluminium fluoride, a hazardous waste product that was costing the company £30,000 a year to dispose of. NISP practitioners identified Mil-Ver Metals, an aluminium producer in Coventry, as a potential solution provider. As a result of the deal, Mil-Ver Metals now uses its rotary furnace melting technology to reprocess DENSO’s waste stream into aluminium ingots, which are used in the manufacture of alloy wheels.

The solution diverts hazardous waste from landfill and saves DENSO a large amount of money as well as generating significant new business for Mil-Ver Metals.

Extending networks

Not all IS projects require such creative thinking. In some cases the synergy is obvious, but needs NISP’s network effect to reach its full potential.

The Land Network recycles biodegradable waste for agricultural purposes such as improving soils, reducing crop disease and as animal bedding. NISP has been instrumental in extending the Land Network’s reach to a whole swathe of new customers, says director Emma Cheetham. “For us, I always say they’re another sales arm. They’re out on the road going into sites and as a reasonably small company we couldn’t possibly do as much as they are doing.”

As a result, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of green waste have been diverted to the Land Network’s composting and recycling plants. Industrial waste streams added to the Land Network’s repertoire thanks to NISP include sawdust, coconut husks and salt.

Cheetham particularly values the networking possibility represented by NISP, which sees information, contacts and best practice being shared between the member organisations. “What I’ve found really useful about NISP is that, if I’ve gone to a site to look at the organic waste, often I get asked: ‘Can you do anything about this plastic?’ And although we can’t, I know I’ve got contacts that I can give them, or I’ll get on the phone to NISP and they’ll find the solution,” she explains.

Laybourn also emphasises this advantage of NISP’s network effect. “If your local NISP practitioner is not expert in your industry, they will put you in touch with someone who is,” he says. “Usually, within a few phone calls or emails, you’re talking to the right person.”

Waste hierarchy

As well as presenting opportunities for businesses, NISP’s approach aligns neatly with the goals of the UK government’s waste hierarchy policy, which encourages businesses to reuse rather than recycle waste streams wherever possible. One way NISP practitioners encourage this behaviour is by recommending that programme participants send redundant IT equipment for reuse.

Blackmore Computers, an IT recycler specialising in data wiping, receives about 100 tonnes of waste a year from businesses working with NISP. Once the stored data have been destroyed, Blackmore recovers residual value from parts, which are stripped out, reused and put back on the market. The revenue generated by these sales means that Blackmore is generally able to offer its service free to companies that would otherwise be paying to have their IT waste recycled.

Again, the environmental benefits of the project complement business ones, acknowledges Blackmore’s owner Simon Barfoot. “Reuse is much better than recycling, because we are using humans to do the process. It’s therefore very low-carbon: we don’t have huge machinery smashing things up,” he explains. Moreover, every tonne of IT waste that Blackmore reuses via NISP is a tonne diverted from further down the waste hierarchy, either from landfill or from recycling.

Barfoot points to the example of a tier one university that was spending thousands of pounds recycling its IT equipment before NISP introduced them to Blackmore. “It gets no bills from us and it gets back about £20,000 a year which it uses for community engagement projects around the university,” he says. “Also, the distance the goods are travelling is now less than 60 miles where it used to be more than 250, and the equipment is reused instead of being smashed up. So the university wins on all fronts: carbon reduction, budget, data safety and doing the right thing environmentally.”

Laybourn says such examples show that IS is a rare “win, win, win” situation for businesses, the government and the environment, and hopes that the business community will continue to embrace it.

Going forward

And what of the future for IS and NISP? “There’s a definite sense that [IS’s] time is now,” says Laybourn, “because it can be done right now. It doesn’t involve international agreements, so no one has to hang around waiting for someone to sign a protocol. It’s supported by non-governmental organisations, businesses and governments, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do lots more of it really, and quicker.”

One innovative potential application for IS is in regional economic development. Birmingham City Council recently worked with NISP to apply the principles of industrial symbiosis to the regeneration of the Tyseley area of the city.

The project took a long-term view of economic regeneration, with an emphasis on encouraging inward investment from businesses that were a good match with existing local industry. “The difference between this and other development strategies is that this is holistic, looking for what is sustainable rather than what is convenient,” says Laybourn.

Based on the success of the Tyseley experiment, NISP intends to promote the value of IS to urban planners and economic strategists.

Laybourn is also optimistic about the potential for greater adoption of the approach overseas, pointing out that NISP is already working with regional IS networks in 14 other countries. He expects to see a pan-European IS network in the next few decades, as the EU deals with the challenges of sustainable resource management.

For Ricoh’s Whyle, IS has to be a key element in industry’s response to the issue of resource security. “There’s a growing awareness among manufacturers concerning the future availability of raw materials,” he says, “and this is where NISP comes in, because we’re more and more aware that we need to recognise our waste as potential raw materials, either for us or for someone else.”

Whyle goes further, and says that companies that fail to capitalise on the opportunities offered by IS will fall behind. “It’s basically sustainability,” he argues. “Industrial symbiosis is sustainability and that in turn is business continuity, so if you’re not doing it, you’re not going to be in business.”

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