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Exploring Industrial Symbiosis

an analysis of current critical issues to identify technologies and digital opportunities

Published onJun 20, 2023
Exploring Industrial Symbiosis
Chiara Palagonia*,+, Laura Michelini1, Caroline Mattelin-Pierrard
1LUMSA University; 2LUMSA University; 3Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University
*[email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]

Extended abstract


Since the first portrait of sustainable economy offered by Boulding in the 60s (Boulding, K. E. 1966; Geissdoerfer et al., 2020), the literature on Circular Economy (CE) has increased considerably.

Data on Scopus show that the selection of the keyword Circular Economy, in the section on business and management, results in more than 3,000 studies.

Within that massive strand is an analysis of simultaneous and equal interest concerning Industrial Symbiosis (IS), an economic strategy whose distinctiveness is evident in incorporating the principles of a CE at the cooperative-firm level.

Industrial Symbiosis is built on the involvement of companies that engage in synergistic cooperation, sharing and optimizing resources, converging in a dual purpose such as value creation in sustainability (Neves et al., 2020).

The actors in the production process, who are the exponent and perpetrators of an unsustainable manufacturing and consumption process, are involved in the creation of a connection network, which aims to elide the notion of waste (Mantese & Amaral, 2018; Neves et al., 2019), through the implementation of innovative technologies, aimed at product life-cycle management and coordination.

Recently, several literature reviews have been published on the topic of IS and the barriers encountered in its implementation.

Despite these useful attempts, there is the necessity for conducting a qualitative analysis that can collect the key issues identified on the topic of IS, as well as the main discussions on the most promising lines of research.

The objective of the paper is filling the research gap, while simultaneously exploring the role that digital technologies can play to overcome these barriers.


To reach this purpose, Systematic Literature Review (SLR) was performed.

The research has been carried out using as database Scopus, selecting the keyword “Industrial Symbiosis”, in order to obtain a general overview on the phenomenon in question.

The bibliographic research was conducted according to the following criteria:

  • only articles papers written in English;

  • only articles published in academic journals;

  • only articles belonging to the “Business, management and accounting” area;

The results (480) were then combined with those emerging both from a further snowballing search (9).

After a detailed reading of each abstract, only papers that addressed the critical issues through a theoretical-conceptual approach were selected, in order to achieve an overall picture of the structural criticality of IS and its implementation. The final sample consisted in 58 papers.

In view of an iterative process of reflection and classification of the topics covered, critical issues emerged, i.e., the challenges faced by the plurality of actors in adopting the circular strategy, along with the barriers and limitations encountered in implementing IS.

The categorisation by issues area is made as follows: 1) Action policies issue; 2) Governance issue; 3) Collaboration issue; 4) Market issue; 5) Economical issue; 6) Logistic-technical issue; 7) Social-Environmental issue.


Issues areas

Main criticalities

Action policy issue

Risk of excessive involvement of the government, as promoter of the trust, in the personal affairs of the companies (D’Hauwers, van der Bank & Montakhabi, 2020).

Lack of regulatory clarity regarding the precise compliance indicators on circularity practices, administrative challenges regarding the approval of waste management projects, difficulties in the management and design of IS networks. (Södergren & Palm, 2021)

Governance issue

Reshape own business model to new form of strategies, inspired to the value of compromise(Manzhynski & Figge, 2020).

The challenges for intermediaries: the mediation function is closely dependent on the choice of companies to share their information on which, in turn, value creation depends (Patala, Salmi & Bocken, 2020).

Collaboration issue

Problem in identification of the ideal partner (Manzhynski & Figge, 2020). Ignorance of all potential collaborating actors on sustainability practices (governments, politics, communities and industries) (Homrich et al., 2018).

Diversity and its ambivalent nature: potential obstacle or potential resource (Paquin et al., 2015). The information and its tricky role: understanding whether companies want to disclose and how much they want to disclose (Patala, Salmi & Bocken, 2020)

Market issue

CE strategies reduce the level of competitiveness due to a possible correlation between environmental commitment and a reduction in the quality/value of the end product (Daddi et al., 2019).

Economical issue

Critical financial conditions of by-product treatment, storage and delivery (Herczeg et al., 2018).

The question of financial affordability of IS (Yazan & Fraccascia, 2020). Disequilibrium in the perception of economic benefits.(Lehtoranta et al., 2011)

Logistic-Technical issue

Difficulties in food waste management related to information and technical data necessary for the efficiency of the process, such as the specific amount of wastage quantity, the type of waste, the mode of exploitation, and the geographical location of the parties involved(Mirabella, Castellani & Sala, 2014).

The issue of prevalence between the economic-environmental benefit of re-use and the cost of transport due to the geographical distance. (Mortensen & Kørnøv, 2019).

Social-Environmental issue

Failure to achieve environmental goals from IS operations because of the economic cost involved.

Need to include parameters for evaluating the possible contributions that circular economy strategies determine on the social context, such as the degree of community involvement to sustainable practices, changes on the employment rate determined by the implementation of circular practices etc (Herczeg et al., 2018; Geng et al., 2012).

Fig. 1. Unrevealing the critical issues of Industrial Symbiosis Source: authors elaboration

Discussion and conclusions

From the analysis performed, what emerges is that, despite the ongoing interest in such economic strategy, there are still critical issues in the actual implementation of new economic-sustainable approaches, due to the necessary intervention of a plurality of actors in the macro and micro level of analysis.

The obstacles are identified in the relationship between companies, which are not always willing to share information about their business or bear the costs involved in circular practices, as well as deal with logistic and technical problems encountered in optimizing resources.

To these is added the critical role of government, whose policies are fundamental for establishing and pursuing circular paradigms, but whose intervention can be critical because of its possible overinvolvement in the private affairs of companies (D’Hauwers, van der Bank & Montakhabi, 2020).

Digitalization and technological development are decisive allies in the effective implementation of CE practices.

Due to its ability to create and provide access to an information dataset, digitalization can improve collaborative relationships between companies, in bridging any challenges caused by lack of transparency, as well as in providing greater access to information on the costs and benefits of IS (Cervo, H., Ferrasse, J.H. & Descales,B. 2019)

Digital quality control systems have been proposed that, through the mechanism of traceability, can address the possible doubts that individual consumers may have about purchasing the product resulting from a circular process (Barteková, E. & Börkey, P. 2022), while maintaining operability in the market.

This research, however, is subject to limitations. A small number of articles (58) was used as a dataset compared to the initial bibliography in the abstract, which was 480 articles. Furthermore, it is believed that the criticality analysis did not cover the entire database, but only the articles worthy of further investigation.

Although the research is merely descriptive in nature, it is useful for practitioners who intend to implement CE strategies, such as IS, in the pursuit of sustainability and resource optimization.

The next step to which the research aspires is to operate an analysis of future research questions emerging from the analysis of the critical issues outlined.


Industrial Symbiosis; Critical issues; Digitalization;


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