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Sustainable business >> Industrial symbiosis >> The food system

Circularity and industrial symbiosis

The prospects of new industrial clusters in Gällivare and other places in Norrbotten are rooted in the possibilities of industrial symbiosis. 

It´s all about making the most out of the resources that become available by the diversity of new operations developing. 

What is a circular economy?

Our current society, where materials from Earth are manufactured, bought and discarded, can be described as a straight linear line. This type of economical model originates from the industrial revolution that was built on the rapid growth of mass production of increasingly cheap products with short life cycles. Negative side effects of the linear economy include significant environmental and social problems. Today, these problems are so extensive that we can no longer continue that path. We need to develop new solutions and business models. It is necessary to stop producing waste and start living within the limits of our planet again. 

Opposite to a linear society is a circular economy where the materials circulate in a cycle that keeps products, components, and materials at their highest possible quality level and where the Earth’s resources are used as little as possible (figure on the right). Materials that have reached the end of their useful life must be collected, recycled and reused into a new product. Products must be designed in such a way they can be used for a long time and cannot contain any environmentally hazardous chemicals. Circular economy enables us to grow prosperity, jobs and resilience while cutting greenhouse emissions, waste and pollution. 


One way to work with circular economy is through industrial symbiosis. 

industrial symbiosis arctic food arena.png

Industrial symbiosis is inspired by nature’s biological symbiosis where two or more species exchange material, energy and/or information in a mutually beneficial way. The same principle in an industrial context could be interpreted as at least three actors exchanging at least two resources (e.g., energy, materials, water or knowledge). 


The aim of industrial symbiosis is to move towards a more sustainable use of resources and reduce waste. By working together in industrial symbiosis, the joint benefits are greater than the sum of the individual parts. For example, business benefits through reduced cost on waste management and resource purchase, improved environmental performance through reduced resource extraction, and social benefits through improvements in the local society. 


Two fundamental principles of industrial symbiosis are: 



Industrial symbiosis

Value(s) created through industrial symbiosis 

Industrial symbiosis can lead to positive outcomes and value creation in all the three areas of sustainability, as shown by overview below. Hence adding value to both companies, people, and our environment.

Business/economic value

Positive effects and economic synergies generated through industrial symbiosis may include:

  • Lower costs to acquire new resource

  • Lower costs for disposing a (waste) resource

  • Revenues from (waste) resources

  • Improved resilience and adaptability for fluctuating raw material prices

  • Improved strategies, sustainable business models and positioning

Environmental value

Positive effects and environmental synergies generated through industrial symbiosis may include:

  • Decreased extraction of virgin/raw materials

  • Decreased CO2/GHG emissions through reduced raw materials

  • Decreased negative effects on biodiversity

  • Decreased amounts of waste

  • Decreased emissions from various transportation

Societal/social value

Positive effects and societal/social synergies generated through industrial symbiosis may include:

  • Growth of local job opportunities

  • Attracting new citizens and companies

  • Increased pride and sense of belonging

  • Value created that ’stays’ locally further stimulates growth and positive outcomes


Values for Gällivare

Previous studies have identified several benefits of industrial symbiosis in Gällivare, including: 

  • Self-sufficient economy that allows for the creation of value domestically and reduces reliance on external factor-driven export models

  • Range of medium- to high-skill jobs fostering economic growth

  • Gradual expansion of the local economy and infrastructure upgrades

  • Thriving and sustainable economy in Gällivare

Roles in the symbiosis

Companies and organizations involved in the symbiosis have different roles depending on if they have a by-product that someone else can use as a resource, are receiving a resource from someone else, or if they are facilitating the resource exchange. 

Based on that, the roles in a symbiosis can be divided into four main categories: 

1. Output company – an actor with a by-product that someone else can use. The most relevant output companies are the ones with large continuous flows, also called as “anchor companies”. Anchor companies create a more stable symbiosis allowing many others to benefits from them (See figure).

2. Input company – an actor who can use other industry’s by-product as a resource in their own. Doing so, an input company can benefit from reduced costs on raw material and resilience.

3. Link company – actors who make a resource from an output company available for an input company through cleaning, refining or transferring the resource into right form. For example, food waste that needs to be transferred to biogas before it can be used by an input company. 

4. Facilitator – coordinates the actors in the symbiosis. The actor can be municipality, already existing company in the symbiosis network or a completely new company created by the actors in the symbiosis. The  facilitator’s role differs between the symbiosis depending on the local needs and the maturity of the symbiosis. Common tasks that a facilitator has includes spreading the knowledge about industrial symbiosis, inventory of the resource flows, relationships between the actors in the symbiosis, planning, research and implementing new links.

anchor company industrial symbiosis.png


In addition to the right actors in the right position, there are also other external enablers that should be worked with, often connected to external actors, factors and government policies. ​


Some of the key external enablers of industrial symbiosis include: 

1. Financing – to develop an idea to a well-functioning symbiosis requires monetary resources, including technology development, small-scale tests, and infrastructure. The sources of finances differs between symbiosis, but most have a combination of public development funds, venture capital, equity capital, and loans.


2. Permits – different types of permits, including building and environmental permits are crucial to establish a symbiosis, and can also be time and resource demanding. Often, a local municipality has an important role in local detail plans and building permits. In Sweden, environmental permits are usually reviewed and approved by Länsstyrelsen. 


3. Knowledge – development of the symbiosis often requires new knowledge, technology and methods to adapt a collaboration to local conditions. Different areas of knowledge and disciplines need to be brought together to get a symbiosis to happen. This might require also involvement of research actors.


4. Testing on a small scale – before investing in big facilities and expensive infrastructure, it is recommended to test on a small scale to evaluate the idea from the technical perspective but also from a collaboration perspective between the companies. 

Challenges and success factors

Even if industrial symbiosis has several positive benefits to environmental, social and economical development it can be a challenging task to succeed with it, often failing due to the human factor or due to legislative barriers. A feasible technical solution cannot always guarantee that a project will proceed with implementation. If the barriers are handled well in an early stage, they can turn into a success factor instead.

Based on the literature and interviews with other industrial symbiosis initiatives, the most common challenges include:

The cooperation and trust between key actors, sharing of information, and network development are crucially important factors for new synergies. It is important to notice that some actors are more familiar and open for collaboration than others. A coordinating body (Facilitator) can significantly contribute to a better cooperation between actors. 

The detailed qualitative and quantitative data (information) on waste streams and about the local industries’ (including resource needs) is an important starting point for the development of the industrial symbiosis. Lack of information and knowledge about the actual resource usage can lead to the wrong decisions. 

Short term thinking can be a challenge in implementing the industrial symbiosis since the whole process can take more time than anticipated in the beginning. Therefore, linking organizational strategies, goals and performance measures connected to company’s and regional sustainable development can help to create a long-term thinking and planning.

A lack of technical knowledge and development may be an additional barrier to proceed with the symbiosis. 

Laws and regulations are one of the biggest challenges in the symbiosis development which is also difficult to overcome, for example, in case of an environmental permit. Many parts of the environmental laws and regulations today are outdated and, in some cases, do not benefit industrial symbiosis. Further, a permit process can take years before succeeding and therefore it is important that actors have a long-term thinking and possibility to wait if needed.

Ways to avoid and mitigate the challenges and barriers include: 

A process owner,  or facilitator, who is taking the lead and responsibility to drive the development of the symbiosis.

Understanding of each actor and what they can gain from collaboration. Industrial symbiosis should be a win-win to everyone, and the risk shared equally.

The springboard effect, meaning that the symbiosis is built on the collaboration that is already taking place today.

Start with an input-output analysis – what costs a lot to purchase / get rid of, what are the large and continuous waste streams in and out from the company.

Short geographical distances between the actors participating in the symbiosis.

Short mental distances and a good collaborative climate. It might help if the actors are sharing the same values. 

Focusing on a common problem. 

Challenges and success factors within Norrbotten

Besides the general challenges described above, there are some challenges typical for the Norrbotten region. Those include: 

  • Gällivare has one of the lowest unemployment rate in Sweden, and the highest starting salaries

  • Prevalent shortage of competence

  • Low level of education 

  • Unbalanced labor market towards low skilled technical work

  • Long distances

  • Climate, including well below freezing temperatures and short hours of daylight during many months of the year

  • Limitations in infrastructure, both in terms of transport and housing


There is also a unique set of challenges related to connecting the food industry into industrial symbiosis in Norrbotten. The food industry faces challenges, especially in relation to production of vegetables and related operations. There is a lack of both competence and experienced commercial actors with experience from this climate and market conditions. 


It is important to create a place that belongs to the local people already resident in Norrbotten, based on their history, needs and values. 

External investors are needed and must be attracted, but similarly, the local people should not be forgotten. For example, food that is produced through the symbiosis should both benefit the local market and be ready for export. 


In the same way, profits should benefit the local society rather than leaving the region. Areas developed should not take away opportunities from the locals or make their living conditions worse. 

Further, creating possibilities for sectors other than the technical side of industrial symbiosis is crucial. The region need services such as culture, education, social security and access to healthcare in order to attract people to live here.


Creating a social symbiosis can be one way to tackle the problems and not forget the human factor in big industrial establishments. 

Potential industrial symbiosis in Gällivare

Gällivare Näringsliv has conducted a high-level pre-study around the feasibility of different symbiosis clusters in the region. This study included resource identification, value chain analysis, assessment of potential applications, and the definition of design attributes. It is an important basis to guide the development of an industrial symbiosis in Gällivare.

gällivare green cluster pre-study.jpg

As part of the results, value chain and resource flows in the food sector within the balanced cluster between food sector and HYBRIT, an initiative to create fossil free steel by using electricity and hydrogen, was presented (see the figure below). From that figure we can see how different resources such as heat, oxygen, material (nutrients, food products) are circulated between different potential future actors. The food sector will be important to building a sutainable industrial symbiosis in Gällivare.


Based on experience from other (industrial symbiosis) projects, the key challenges that could occur include laws and regulations, finding a win-win solution to everyone, and creating a good collaboration atmosphere with common goals and values. There are many land-based aquaculture projects, for example, that have had to wait on their environmental permits for years or have had big regulatory challenges with using unconventional circular fish feed.


Further, it should be very clear what and how different actors are benefiting from the collaboration. It is recommended to avoid a majority voice in the decision making, in case of a dominant anchor company. Here Artic Food Arena has an important role to play as a facilitator of the potential symbiosis.

Good examples

Boden Plug & Play

Boden, Norrbotten County

Similarly to Gällivare, Boden has big industries with large quantities of surplus energy. There are several initiatives ongoing, including industrial symbiosis between data centers and large-scale cultivation. The cultivation plant is planned to be up to 10 000 m2 in size and heated up with surplus energy from the Hive data hall. This year, the food tech company Agtira has signed the agreement with food group Greenfood worth up tp 285 million SEK. The plant will be Agtira’s largest facilities in Sweden and the aim is to cultivate cucumbers. 

Agtira’s business concept is based on cultivation systems for vertical and indoor cultivation in urban environments with the possibility of food production in, or directly adjacent to, grocery stores close to the customer. Under their FaaS (Farming as a Service) approach, Agtira itself or with a third party invests, sets up and operates its farming systems to produce different vegetables and fish species, while the store or chain commits to buying the entire volume produced over a certain contractual period at pre-determined prices.

As a first step in Boden, the greenhouse will be built. The second step in the project would be to link it to the fish farming. 

In addition to Plug & Play, there is a project in Boden run by Axfoundation, SLU and 23 other actors to develop a sustainable animal feed of the future for food birds, laying hens, fish and pigs. Right now, among other things, insects raised on food waste, blue mussels that clean the Baltic Sea and mycoprotein fed with waste streams from the forest industry are being investigated. 

The ambition is to link the animal food production to Plug & Play symbiosis and use the excess heat from the data hall in the same area where a solar panel park is planned.

Energysymbiosis in Boden


Good examples

Regenergy Frövi, WA3RM

Frövi, Lindesberg municipality

Regenergy Frövi is being developed next to Billerud’s production facility in Frövi/Rockhammar. Billerud’s large and recently updated facility produces packaging carton and liquid carton. The Regenergy facility will cover 21 hectar – equivalent to more than 40 football fields – capable of producing food in a circular and highly controlled manner all year round.

Regenergy in Frövi is a regenerative symbiosis where the excess heat is used to grow tomatoes. The cooled water is then lead back to paper factory.

This is a collaboration project between Billerud, WA3RM, Lindesberge municipality, and the tomato producer.


  • Collaboration partners include: Billerud, Lindesberg municipality, Linde Energi and Region Örebro.

  • Yearly economic growth +350 MSEK

  • Total investment approximately 1 400 MSEK.

  • Tomato production planned to start in 2024 and its expected to produce 8000 ton per year


Good examples

Industrial and social symbiosis in Sotenäs municipality

Sotenäs Municipality, Västra Götaland County

The foundation of Sotenäs symbiosis was laid in 2015 by establishing a Sotenäs Center of Symbiosis, a municipal organisation that carries a key role in facilitating and coordinating the development of the symbiosis. The municipality took a leading role after understanding that the three biggest fish processing companies have a problem restricting their expansion – wastewater. The companies had already reached the limit of the nutrients allowed to the sea and the amount of wastewater to a local wastewater treatment plant. There were two options, either the companies would move away, leaving a lot of unemployed people behind or the municipality would step in and help the companies to solve their problem. They chose the latter.

Today, there are two industrial symbioses in Sotenäs, one built up around fish processing industries and the other one on reusing, recycling and upcycling of marine plastic.

And one social symbiosis with an aim to strengthen the relationships, collaborations, support entrepreneurs in innovation and the green transition.


The “fish symbiosis” is the biggest symbiosis in Sotenäs, including nine companies who are exchanging water, fish residues, biogas, electricity, heat and biofertilizer with each other. The central part of the symbiosis is a wastewater plant combined with biogas plant, processing the wastewater from the industries. Heat and electricity from the biogas plant are circulated back to the industries and the nutrient rich slam is given to a local farm.


Resource collaboration between the companies is expected to have several positive benefits, including reduction of CO2 emissions by 60 000 ton per year, 164 million saved by reduced transportation costs and 20 new companies.


Further reading

Symbios: om hur avfall blir resurser i den cirkulära ekonomin. Författare Emma Dalväg och Tobias Jansson. ISBN 9789152716236

Knowledge Hub Sustainable business >> Industrial symbiosis >> The food system

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