Srijana Mitra Das, she discusses industrial symbiosis, its environmental and economic benefits — and the lessons Indian firms in Nanjangud, Karnataka, can offer the world.
What is the core of your work on industrial ecology?
The core is the idea that physical resources matter. This means materials, energy and water and examining these items not by themselves but as a system.
With this view, you don’t only look at what happens in a factory making refrigerators, for example. Instead, you examine what happens along that whole value chain, from digging minerals out of the earth towards composing a refrigerator to the energy that goes into producing and using it to what happens at the end of the product’s life. This system examines everything in the process of creating, using and disposing products. Industrial ecology follows the flows of materials and energy in business and consumer activities and the effects of these flows economically, in a regulatory sense and in environmental and social impacts.
What is industrial symbiosis?
Interestingly, the first article on industrial ecology was written in 1989, by the directors of the research and development department at General Motors. They envisioned a very different way to manufacture automobiles — their idea was to conserve the environment by transforming manufacturing, not through individual vehicles, but by creating an integrated system. They termed this an industrial ecosystem — they recognised that within automobile plants, for instance, it was important to conserve energy, optimise resource usage and reduce waste. Alongside, a system was needed where effluents from one process could become raw materials for another. That is industrial symbiosis.
Also, in 1989, an industrial ecosystem was discovered in Kalundborg, Denmark, where one company’s waste was actually another’s stock. Many separate companies were working together. A coal-fired power plant generating heated water was sharing this with entrepreneurs running a fish farm. A pharmaceutical company was giving tested organic byproducts to local farmers for their fields. This became an effective blend of economic and environmental activity working together to improve business and society.
What is the business logic for such symbiosis? Can it give firms a competitive advantage?
This is an important point — business logic is shifting today. Back in the 1980s, when companies weren’t familiar with environmental practices, but new laws on air and water pollution were coming out, the first vision was simply to follow the laws. In the next phase, it was recognised how much better this was socially — less air and water pollution meant less disease and lower pressure on community networks. It also became clear that these regulated practices were benefitting companies. If you use energy judiciously in your plant, you pay less. So, with lower impacts came better bottom lines.
In the current phase, awareness has grown manifold that the business of a business must include well-being for the community and all stakeholders.
Marian Chertow, professor of industrial environmental management, Yale University.
You’ve researched industrial symbiosis globally — can you share your insights on India?
My team has studied multiple economies and we’ve found India to be the most promising country of all at industrial symbiosis. In India, people across the board have an ethos around resources not being unending and there being a need to conserve these. We found the most use and recapture of by-products in India. We studied the Nanjangud Industrial Area outside Mysuru, Karnataka. We examined 50 companies there to understand the inputs and outputs in their plants. There was a wide array of production facilities, including a sugar refinery, a coffee producer, automotive parts makers, circuit board manufacturers, textile factories and microenterprises.
We catalogued everything that went in and came out of these plants — it turned out that although no one had recorded it, there was a great deal of partnership across these firms. They were using each other’s by-products with natural ease. These 50 companies created 9,00,000 tons of potential discards — that’s almost a million tons that could have gone into the waste stream. However, an incredible amount of cooperation prevented this — the coffee maker gave his residues to a company extracting oils from these. This company gave the remainder to another company making boiler fuel. These weren’t companies in the same industry even, like paper and pulp — these were very different companies that found competitive advantage through resource sharing.
We found 99.5% of the 9,00,000 tons of potential discards were reused or recycled at least once. This is already a circular economy with industrial symbiosis. When we shared our findings with the companies, their managers only asked, ‘How can we improve this to 100%?’ The world has a lot to learn from India here.
Views expressed are personal.