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Industrial Symbiosis: A pathway to Circular Economy

The UAE has rapidly reinvented itself as a high-tech, trade, and service-oriented economy in the past few decades. The industrial sector in the UAE acts as the economic backbone of the nation and cemented its leading position across the MENA region by establishing 47 industrial park zones, where the clustering of production activities creates time and cost-saving synergies. The UAE Circular Economy Policy 2031-2021 emphasizes the importance of adhering to sustainable consumption and production practices and stresses adopting circular strategies in the manufacturing sector. This ignites the exploration of “industrial symbiosis (IS),” a subset of “industrial ecology” which is a subset of the “circular economy” umbrella. IS is a cooperation between two or more industrial partners to benefit mutually by exchanging resources like materials, water, and energy; a byproduct/side stream of one industry becomes the input/raw material of another company’s production. In simple terms: “One’s trash becomes another’s treasure.”

IS provides a well-developed foundation for defining circular economy goals and methods at local and regional levels. In practice, achieving industrial symbiosis is an intricate task as it involves many challenges and compels strong policy interventions to enable synergetic exchange of resources among industries. A case study in Ras Al Khaimah highlights the major challenges associated with IS:

  • Institutional Challenges: Lack of incentives, absence of guiding policies by authorities to implement synergies, and inadequate institutional capabilities for testing and research could be significant barriers. Based on a survey, 87% of the respondents are interested in a green label / eco-friendly industry certification and showed a positive attitude towards waste management provided with appropriate incentives, financial benefits, or recognition.
  • Regulatory Challenges: Surveys and discussions with stakeholders and industrial zones brought up regulatory requirements, especially for environmental protection. There aren’t regulatory instruments that can encourage symbiotic exchanges for practical implementation of circular thinking and ways to avoid waste landfilling. Only 33% of the respondents reusing wastes within their process and by-products from other industries cannot find an alternative application, making industries reluctant to deviate from their usual practices.

  • Organizational Challenges: 35% of respondents mentioned waste management is challenging due to operational costs and logistics. Organizational constraints within the industry for material flow/handling, reluctance to invest in unproven technologies and non-alignment of interests between stakeholders are significant barriers. Even though few industries are committed and unwilling to go beyond core business to enable alignment, it’s highly challenging to achieve without government interventions, targets, or incentives.

  • Technical Challenges: Inconsistent material flows and by-products’ quality and consistency could significantly deter potential symbiotic exchanges. For example, in surveys conducted for cement industries, 40% of the respondents are not inclined to use pre-treated municipal solid waste as an alternative fuel (AF), and 40% responded with strict quality requirements of the feed to be used as AF.

  • Informational Challenges: Studies showed that more than half of the entities had a clear knowledge of the by-products they produced and are also aware of the recyclable content of their waste. They were also knowledgeable on waste management options and alternative material substitution. However, there is a knowledge gap about the inventories of other tenants, as most of the companies are unaware of the neighbors’ raw materials and by-products, not knowing if there might be something valuable for them.

  • Economic Challenges: Relatively cheap fossil fuel in the region is perhaps, the most apparent economic barrier impeding the development of IS. The use of alternative fuels is only attractive if the prices of those fuels are at least 30-40% cheaper than the fossil fuel sources. Additionally, unreliable demand and supply of alternative resources is considered a significant barrier too.

After considering the existing challenges, opportunities, and potential synergies, IS may serve as a pathway for sustainable waste management and guide toward a circular economy. IS ensures optimization of resources, resulting in evolving sustainability. Its barriers can be overcome by an interactive policy framework. Here, learnings from pioneering policies across the world helped identify favorable policy recommendations:

  • Support research for defining wastes and establishing industrial networks of exchanges: Industrial entities and authorities require strong support from academia to characterize and define wastes clearly, and to identify end-of-waste status. Targeted research simplifies the recognition of by-products specifications and encourages scouting for legal exchange of materials. Establishing stronger links between industries and research institutes ensures that IS research, training, and business models are frequently discussed for enabling sustainable consumption and production practices leading to IS.
  • Reduce the information barriers through cooperation platforms to facilitate synergies: This can bridge the coordination deficit between waste, energy producers, potential uptakes of these streams, and the providers of know-how and technology. Such platforms provide knowledge to reduce information barriers and may help identify scope for IS arrangements.
  •  Regulatory, economic incentives and certification schemes are promising instruments: Introduced by regional and local authorities, these can drive IS indirectly, through favoring higher and penalizing lower waste hierarchy options. For successful incubation, emergence, and institutionalization of an IS scenario, authorities might consider providing Green or Eco-industry certification to the qualified industries.
  • Education and awareness of all stakeholders is mandatory: There is skepticism regarding the practicality of industrial exchange networks and questions about costs involved and how to overcome barriers need to be addressed. It is important to foster industry trust in existing industrial networks, to support IS initiatives using successful local, regional, and national cases. Apart from industrial entities other stakeholders such as public authorities, waste management facilitators and industrial cluster management should gain sufficient awareness and understand the implications of achieving IS.

To summarize, IS can create material and energy savings, new business opportunities, and minimize waste and pollution. To shift toward effective IS networks and achieve a circular economy, targeted policy instruments are essential to trigger this change. Policy interventions should encourage an active leadership role of public authorities in motivating and facilitating collaboration through establishing regional IS clusters and networks, building trust and cooperation among industries, universities, and research institutes driving toward a circular economy.


Uday Kumar is an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and a Senior Research Engineer at the RAK Research and Innovation Center, American University of Ras Al Khaimah. Dr. Uday holds a Ph.D. in Energy Technology from KTH, Sweden, with more than ten years of experience in interdisciplinary applied research for sustainable development of integrated systems for energy, water, and environmental sustainability.