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Sustainable composites through by-product synergy

News International-French

8 Apr 2011

By-product synergy (BPS) is a practical application of industrial ecology in which companies work together in a given region to match feedstock or raw material needs to devalued byproducts. Through the BPS process, individual companies are transformed into a partnership or cross-industry team focused on directing every kilogramme of material running through their plants into a value-added product stream.

(Published on March - April 2008 – JEC Magazine #39)




By shifting strategy from a pursuit of “less waste” to a strategy of “100% product”, companies can pursue a path of “ecoeffectiveness” as described by the authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart in the 2002 book Cradle to Cradle. McDonough and Braungart elaborate further on this concept based on the industrial ecology principle that “Waste Equals Food”. If generating products and food, rather than products and waste, is the ultimate natural consequence of industrial output, an increase in output can support or offset resource needs of another, thereby reducing the depletion of natural resources.

In Figure 1, the BPS material flow is presented in the context of industrial ecology and differentiated from closedloop recycling and postconsumer recycling. The encouraging aspect of this sustainability philosophy is that with an eco-effective industrial model, growth is good for the environment. Traditional philosophy regarding human impact and environmental protection focused on controlling or restraining industrial growth, since growth was perceived as the problem. BPS matches under-valued waste or by-product streams with potential users, creating economic benefit through new revenues or savings while also producing societal and environmental benefits, as measured through the triple bottom line.


The synergy of a pair (or a group) of diverse manufacturing, agriculture, or community partners can result in the profitable and sustainable conversion of by-products and wastes into resources or products.


Waste Equals Food: applications for composites and cast polymers

The concept of BPS is not new to the plastic and cast polymer industry. In fact, BPS is at the foundation of our industry. The first commercial synthetic plastic, bakelite, involved compounding phenolic resin with a filler of by-product wood flour. Synthetic marble and resilient floor tile manufacturers have commonly used fillers derived from by-products of non-metallic mining or stone cutting. More recently, coal combustion by-products such as alumina-silicate glass (ASG) have been utilized in cast polymer applications for architectural products used for ornamental and paving purposes. ASG has successfully been used in the carpet industry to offset the use of virgin calcium carbonate.

Figures 2 and 3 present an example of recycled bottle glass successfully used as a filler and decorative accent in resilient composite floor tiles. This flooring application was specifically developed and marketed to support architects and owners in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credits within the U.S. Green Building Council rating system. With the increasing cost of raw materials and restrictions on land disposal or incineration, BPS offers margin improvement opportunities to the composite and cast polymer industries on the up-stream and downstream supply chain. The incorporation of postindustrial or post-consumer derived materials in product design enhances sustainable marketing aspects for recycled content and reduced life cycle carbon footprints, thus possibly opening new markets such as green buildings, sustainable infrastructures and transportation.


The BPS process

The process begins by cataloguing inflows and outflows of each organization in a confidential, uniform database that is analyzed for synergies by the project team through facilitated working sessions with the participants. Potential partners collaborate on action plans for synergies judged commercially viable, and organize strategies for addressing technical, regulatory and other issues. Participating company engineers and operational staffs are exposed to the production processes, raw material needs, and waste streams of other businesses and industries. Through facilitated collaboration, participating organizations work to identify innovative pilot projects to demonstrate synergies that improve the triple bottom line of each partner. The materials can be exchanged, sold or provided free of charge depending on the economics of the synergy.


Benefits and barriers

Benefits of the process are the achievement of balanced economic, societal, and environmental goals such as:


  • reduced operating expenses,
  • reduced energy use and carbon footprint,
  • waste transformed into new products and revenue streams,
  • community economic stability, land use, and job retention and development,
  • improved margins and profitability.


Numerous barriers may need to be overcome during the BPS process. Each synergy will have its own unique set of barriers. If the barriers can be identified early in the process, they can be overcome through collaboration. The most common barriers can be divided into five categories: technical barriers, economic barriers, regulatory or liability barriers, market perception & reputation, and lack of incentives. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) has been a leading supporter of BPS right from the very start. The US EPA has been looking at reforming certain aspects of hazardous waste regulations that inhibit companies from developing environmentally beneficial synergy activities. These regulatory reforms have revised the definition of hazardous waste to exclude secondary materials that can be recycled or reclaimed. The revisions have been drafted and are expected to be published as a Final Rule in early 2008. These reforms should create significant interest and growth in BPS in the United States.


BPS as a national strategy: National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP)

In the UK, the waste industry has been faced with growing challenges that have required rapid transformation due to diminishing landfill space. It has also been hit by the European Union directives on reuse and climate change, and increased energy costs. The National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) is supported by government partners from the UK Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, the Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the Department of Trade and Industry. NISP has been an effective national strategy to support the transition from a landfill business model to a dynamic reuse and sustainability model. These changes are producing competitive advantages for UK companies in Europe and abroad. The BPS approach has been employed successfully in a variety of structures in the United States. Dow effectively used BPS between its business units and manufacturing locations within its operations on the Gulf Coast. BPS projects are underway in a growing number of major cities including Kansas City, Chicago and Seattle. The growing participation and variety of models for BPS has drawn attention in the academic community, resulting in research and collaboration between industry, government and leading business and technology research institutions including the Harvard Business School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and The Ohio State University.


BPS as platform for composite waste management

Trade associations and industry consortiums remain an untapped and high potential platform for the development of by-product synergies.


If industry stakeholders contributed data on their material flows, the pooled resource needs or pooled byproduct streams could potentially provide the critical mass and supply to support new applications or markets. For the composite industry, by-product synergies for grinding dust, trimmings, and end-of-life composite waste disposal will offer the highest-priority opportunities (Figure 3).


The leadership in pursuing composite waste management strategies appears to have shifted to the European Union. Growing stakeholder and societal concerns over the responsible management of composite waste, most notably end-of-life waste streams, resulted in the formation of a Composite Waste Management Working Group within the European Composites Industry Association (EuCIA). The EuCIA recognizes the significant business threat that stems from limited available waste management options for our industry. The working group has reached out to its members and industry partners for technical and financial support in pursuing this critical sustainability objective. By-product synergy presents a demonstrated mechanism to organize and accelerate the progress of such working groups and other business-to-business partnerships.


In late 2007, the US EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the US Business Council for Sustainable Development to jointly advance BPS on a global level. The EuCIA Working Group mission coupled with the experience of the US EPA, the US BCSD and the UK NISP programme present an organizational synergy that could be explored and leveraged.