Matériaux & Techniques
Volume 107, Number 5, 2019
Materials and Society: The Circular Economy (SAM13)
Article Number 508
Number of page(s) 8
Published online 25 February 2020

© SCF, 2020

1 Introduction

In metal and steel industry residual materials, i.e. by-products and waste, are generated in addition to the main products. The amounts of residual materials generally follow the produced amount of steel and just under two million tonnes of residual materials were produced in Swedish iron and steel making industries in the year of 2015 [1]. According to World Steel Association, [2] a worldwide average of approximately 200 kg and 400 kg co-products (by-products) are formed for each tonne of steel, in scrap-based and ore-based steelmaking routes, respectively. Historically many of these residual materials were mainly landfilled or put on long-term storage. Nowadays, the production industry has increasing incentives to be resource efficient and sustainable and most of the residual materials are in-house recycled or used in external applications [1,2]. Nevertheless, some materials are still unexploited and labelled as waste. The possibility to use these materials in another value chain, by industrial symbiosis thereby avoiding landfill would promote a resource effective circular economy.

The concept of circular economy cannot be derived from a special occasion or a given author, but it started to emerge in the late 1970s [3]. Since then, several descriptions and definitions of circular economy have been formulated, all describing a system where materials and products are reduced, reused or recycled instead of being disposed [4,5]. Politically, interest in circular economy and sustainability has increased in recent years, both in terms of legislation, policies and action plans [69], but also in terms of funding programs for research and of networks and meeting places being initiated [1012]. The work for sustainability in the industry has increased over the years and many companies work in a different way with sustainability now than 10 years ago. How the work is performed can vary depending on for example the size of the company, its business concept and the industrial sector it belongs to. The work towards a circular economy is strongly affected by market, policymakers and society [13,14].

One way of working in the direction towards a more sustainable business is to let residual materials become part of an industrial symbiosis (IS) [15,16]. The definition proposed by Lombardi and Laybourn [16]: “IS engages diverse organizations in a network to foster eco-innovation and long-term culture change. Creating and sharing knowledge through the network yields mutually profitable transactions for novel sourcing of required inputs, value-added destinations for non-product outputs, and improved business and technical processes.” differs from the, perhaps most, widespread academic definition given by Chertow [17]. Among other things, Lombardi and Laybourn argue that the involved organisations do not have to be industries and that they do not need geographic proximity. Furthermore, their definition does not merely include physical exchange of materials and energy flows, but also exchange of knowledge and expertise.

In order to establish an IS, there are factors and mechanisms that must be considered. Previous studies of factors, both impelling and constricting, influencing the development of an IS have been performed, some of them focusing mainly on the steel and base metals production sector [18,19] and some concerning other industry sectors as well [13,14,2023]. Aspects such as the mechanisms, time aspects and work on organisational levels, within or in between the companies, regarding IS was investigated and presented by Madsen et al. in a study of a surface water IS-exchange between two unspecified companies [24]. However, such aspects have not been further analysed when it comes to residual materials symbiosis and the steel and base metals production sector. In order to analyse this further in relation to the steel and base metals production industry, research work were carried out by the Swedish research institute Swerim, in collaboration with companies in the Swedish steel and base metals industry, SSAB Merox, Höganäs Sweden, Boliden Mineral, and the Swedish steel producers’ association, Jernkontoret’s technical area 55, Steel production residues.

The aim with the research work was to identify and define different aspects of the work for enhanced symbiosis and issues with residual materials in relation to IS in the steel and the base metals industry. In-depth interviews with representants, working with sustainability issues and residual materials, at the companies were made to identify and categorize the general factors which affect potentials for residual materials symbiosis. Further interviews were made to point out the material specific issues in relation to work on company levels and in between companies as well as the timeline for establishing a residual materials symbiosis. The method is described in section 2 and the results in section 3 followed by discussion and conclusions in sections 4 and 5, respectively.

2 Method

The research work was performed by in-depth interviews with each industrial partner where they had the opportunity to give their individual view on circular economy, IS and what, according to their experience, are the impelling or constricting factors for IS.

All addressed factors were then sorted into categories and presented to the industrial partners in order to highlight and discuss them after which another interview was made with each partner. In this second interview, time aspects and differences in symbiosis potentials were analysed. Six different materials were evaluated describing the actions related to the IS issues on different organisational levels due to the residual materials characteristics and classification. The six cases consisted of different residual materials with valuable contents such as Iron (Fe), carbon (C), and Zinc (Zn) and lime (CaO). The materials were in the form of dust and sludge. Materials analysed had different classifications and were both those for which there already exist an established business model/IS and those which presumably will be part of an IS. Depending on the residual materials and their classification (i.e., hazardous waste, inert waste, by-products) the work and issues related to different levels within or in between the companies were pointed out.

A matrix was formed to organise and analyse the outcome of the second interviews. The matrix is inspired by Madsen et al. [24] with the categories mentioned above and three organisational levels:

  • factors that refers to the cooperation between the involved companies or that only refers to the customer;

  • factors within the producing company;

  • factors that are affected by or affect the employees at the producing company.

3 Results

3.1 Key factors

Based on the result from the individual in-depth interviews, the identified key factors, affecting establishment of an IS, could be sorted into five categories, physical/technical, regulatory, business, motivation and society according to Figure 1.

thumbnail Fig. 1

Identified factors.

Facteurs identifiés.

3.2 Timeline

The timeline describing the order of the work in relation to time for establishing residual material symbiosis were divided in three work phases to reach a business agreement, the idea phase, the development phase and the establishment phase (Fig. 2).

In the idea phase, a potential application for a residual material is identified whereby the material is investigated for its suitability based on the customer’s requirements. The development phase describes an iterative process involving the producer and the customer. In this iterative process, the material and its characteristics, as well as its application suitability, economic sustainability and the opportunities for a successful co-operation are assessed. In the establishment phase, issues such as an agreement of a suitable business model and market acceptance need to be resolved. During the total time of establishment, legislative issues and required permits (i.e., handling, shipping, processing) need to be taken into consideration.

thumbnail Fig. 2

Timeline for the establishment of an industrial symbiosis.

Chronologie de l’établissement d’une symbiose industrielle.

3.3 Matrix study

Six individual matrices, one for each of the materials analysed, were made. For a compressed overview of the outcome of the material and work analyses, a compilation of all matrices was made (Tab. 1). Identified factors consistent for all the materials are in the matrix written in bold.

Table 1

A matrix study of encouraging and limiting factors when establishing an industrial symbiosis using residual materials. Italic factors are those considered highly influencing for the six different materials. Bold factors appeared in more than one of the six material cases.

Étude matricielle des facteurs encourageants et limitants lors de l’établissement d’une symbiose industrielle utilisant des matières résiduelles. Les facteurs en italique sont ceux considérés comme influençant fortement les six matériaux différents. Des facteurs de style audacieux ont été trouvés dans plus d’un des six cas importants.

4 Discussion

Discussions on the outcome of the work are firstly regarding the results and the identified factors, time aspects and the material and organisational matrix. Secondly, discussions are on the most prominent concerns for IS establishment based on results from this research work and also from the literature.

4.1 Identified factors

The study was intended to analyse the curse of events, and the issues when establishing an IS in a specific context. The identified factors in Figure 1 can act both as directly affecting or as indirectly affecting and the categories for sorting the factors are in some cases overlapping. As an example, regulatory factors affect the business economics, which in turn are important motivators. However, the factors, sorted by categories, illustrate the issues and the complexity of the establishment of an IS compared to a regular affair with already established products.

4.2 Time aspects

The timeline created in this work (Fig. 2) describes the establishment of an IS, starting with an idea phase, mainly connected to the factors sorted under the physical/technical category, but also the factors in the motivation category. Madsen et al. [24] is writing about, yet not presenting its outline, a fictive timeline for the realization of the exchange within an IS. The producer generally needs a deep understanding of the material specifics and the customers’ requirements. The development iterative process phase is also very strongly affected by the physical/technical factors together with factors in the business category. The establishment phase is mainly connected to the factors in the categories business and society. Throughout the process of establishing an IS, continuous collaboration with authorities regarding permits, restrictions and definitions is required. The time it takes from idea phase to establishment depends on the symbiosis starting position, i.e. knowledge of the residual material, the intended customer, the application and market, as well as legislative issues (i.e., time to get necessary permits, etc.).

4.3 The material and organisational matrix

The identified knowledge, issues and work required on the organisational levels regarding material symbiosis are also found within other industry sectors. For example, similarities can be found between the factors in Table 1 and the barriers/enablers found by Kurdve et al. [20]. In their study, involving participants from community services and companies within process industries, manufacturing, IT sector, farming, and services, factors like lack of trust and communication, lack of knowledge and regulatory barriers were found to be critical for the development of an urban and IS. The result in Table 1 is also in agreement with the study of business models for circular economy by Mont et al. [13] where a mix of industries within for example telecommunications equipment, recycling, automotive, and paper has been examined.

Most of the factors in Table 1 are valid for several, or all, of the six materials. However, there are also material specific factors due to the inconsistencies in issues related to specific materials and their classifications. Some of the factors act impelling for one material and as barrier for another, depending on the material specifics and the customer. Factors can in addition act both impelling and as barriers for the same material. Similar results can be seen in the study by Madsen et al. [24] where several factors were identified as both barriers and enabling factors for the companies when it comes to IS. For example, the lack of several of the enabling factors can be found among the barriers, such as lack of clear policy signals, lack of trust and lack of knowledge about other companies.

Different factors were considered most important when pointing out two factors of high influence (italic factors in Tab. 1) for the six separate materials. However, the important factors are found in the same categories and on the same organisational levels. At the cooperation between the companies’ level, regulatory and business factors are highlighted as the ones with the strongest influence. If the material is classified as a hazardous waste, it will be expensive for the producer to dispose. However, if it can be used by an IS this high disposal cost might contribute to making the symbiosis economically feasible. Costs due to high carbon taxes make the customers interested in using already calcinated high CaO materials to avoid fossil CO2-emissions. In the business category, the need for suitable partners and to find sales possibilities in a market that is unknown to the producer was mentioned as a strongly influencing factor. Business factors are also considered to have the strongest influence at the second organisational level, within the producing company, together with factors in the motivation category. Thus, on neither level the technical/physical factors were considered the most important which is in accordance with the study by Kirchherr et al. [14].

4.4 Residual material vs. main product

When establishing an IS using residual materials, the chemical content and the properties of the materials are significant in the same way as for a business with main products. The materials must contain substances and possess properties that the customer is interested in and it should not exceed limits for certain substances regarding for example incineration directive, emissions and requirements on the final product.

Analysing the outcome of influencing factors for an IS (Fig. 1, Tab. 1), it is evident that an IS based on a residual material on many levels differs from business with main products. For example, the producer’s focus is the main product and the produced quality and quantity of the residual material might not correspond with customer demand. The problem with mismatching quantities is also raised by Madsen et al. [24]. And according to Kurdve et al. [20] there is a problem that especially large companies focus on their main products, making it difficult to find solutions for their residual products.

When doing business with a main product the focus is a known market where specific products are requested, thus both customer and producer know what to expect. With residual materials on the other hand, both the market and the potential customer might be unknown to the producer and it can be difficult for the customer to gain an understanding of the materials. This means that it is central to have a good knowledge and understanding of the customer’s requirement and the properties and value of the materials, which are factors that often ended up at the employee level in the matrix (Tab. 1), and which also is initiating the important iterative process in the development phase in the timeline for establishing a symbiosis (Fig. 2).

4.5 Material classifications

Materials can be classified as products, by-products or waste. Depending on classification, there are different obligations for permits and registration. For example, it can be difficult and time consuming to get necessary permits if a material is classified as waste; it may take years before decisions are made which makes it difficult for companies to plan their investments. There is also a problem that even if the material is a registered by-product according to Reach-regulation and registration, potential customers can be hesitant since the material isn’t an established main product on the market. This is in line with the findings of Kirchherr et al. [14] as they state that “Hesitant company culture” is considered one of the main barriers for the circular economy. Since it should be the properties and features of the final product that matter, there is a desire in the industry that all materials should have the same conditions regardless of its origin [25]. A study regarding regulatory barriers to IS in the metal sector concluded that it is a problem when materials are considered as waste when further processing is required prior to reuse [19].

4.6 Laws, regulations and standards

The interpretation of laws and regulations can be limiting to the symbiosis establishment, especially since permits often are issued regionally e.g. in Sweden. Thus, there is a risk that different decisions will be made in different parts of the country or between countries. The industry is, for example, experiencing a lack of knowledge about company residuals in regions where no similar industries are established. Therefore, an increased knowledge exchange between the authorities and industry all over the country is desired. The same is valid at the European level, thus a harmonization of European regulations would be favourable in order to provide common standards across the European market.

One example of the importance of a common standard across Europe is regarding material transportation across country boarders. The countries regulations in view of residual materials and transportation may be contradictory, thus a material with permit in one country may need additional permits in another country.

The lack of a holistic view sometimes results in counteracting political rules, thereby complicating the symbiosis work. Therefore, it is positive with the communication from the European Commission concerning the interface between chemical, product and waste areas legislations, addressing the issues and how they can be resolved at appropriate level, within the EU, nationally or locally [7].

Policies based on the UN sustainable development goals and European Commission’s circular economy package, both worldwide and local, are examples of factors promoting IS.

4.7 Economy

Economic aspects and positive economic results are important for implementing an IS. However, the economic gain regarding residual materials can be from savings made by avoided deposit or long-term storage and by identifying the materials value in use such as avoided carbon taxes and making use of its valuable contents [13,14,24] (Fig. 1, Tab. 1). Costs in relation to establishing an IS are e.g., for transportation or required investments, for example, the necessity to pre-treat the material, either to enable transportation or for charging in the process. The company’s motivation relates to its general business model and strategy. This means that pronounced goals from the organisation, for example regarding sustainability or how to handle residual materials, can be the driving force for the investments needed. There is a need for new business models and economic systems that are better suited for the circular economy [26,27]. Mont et al. [13] highlight the driving possibility of a company strategy and the possible barrier if the circularity does not align with the company’s strategy and Madsen et al. [24] show that it is an enabling motivational factor to follow the sustainability strategy at the company.

4.8 Sustainability

A frequently recurring factor in the matrix is sustainability (Tab. 1). It is a society factor on the first two organisation levels, i.e. both between the companies and within the producing company. This can be one reason why it is also a motivating factor at both of those levels. The pressure from society to reach sustainability is expressed in various ways, such as requirements to reduce emissions of fossil-based CO2, reach national environmental targets, reduce virgin material consumption and work towards a circular economy. As the consumers focus on increased sustainability this may have a positive influence on company image and sales.

4.9 Networks and clusters

Finding new customers and cooperation opportunities to enable new business solutions are crucial in relation to the idea phase (Fig. 2). This together with the need for discussions on e.g. material related issues and legal frameworks creates a need to join existing, or new, networks and venues in order to meet others working with the same questions (Fig. 1). The networks can be sector specific as well as span several industries where industry, public actors, academia and authorities can get together and share knowledge with each other in order to identify and establish new IS. This agrees with one of the conclusions in the study by Kurdve et al. [20], that physical meetings between people that usually not meet can initiate new solutions outside the companies’ core businesses. In a study performed within the international research centre Nordregio [15], a decisive factor for the development of IS is the presence of a formal cluster organisation responsible for running and managing the business and helping to organise exchanges between companies and facilitating the cooperation. The report also mentions the need for a competent and credible intermediary who can build bridges between producers of secondary materials and potential users of secondary materials as a resource.

5 Conclusions

One important conclusion is that the classification of materials, especially as waste, makes it troublesome to establish a new IS, due to for example permits applications and hesitant customers. From this, it can be concluded that the establishment of new IS, within the steel and base metals industry, would be facilitated if all materials had the same conditions regardless of origin as long as the final product gets the same properties and features. Removing the classifications would increase the possibility to trade with residual materials, i.e. secondary raw materials, on corresponding commercial grounds as business establishments with main products.

The establishment of an IS can also be troublesome due to conflicting laws and policies, as well as ambiguities and miscommunication between authorities and industry. These problems can sometimes be linked to the classification issue as well. Nevertheless, it is concluded that improved demands from laws and directives in different industries can have potential to enable new business areas as well.

Finally, it was concluded that the time aspect of an establishment of an IS is highly affected by the producer’s awareness about the intended market, thus cooperation and knowledge sharing regarding the use of residual materials is essential. For this, it is important to understand the properties of the different materials and what the customers need. It is also beneficial with networks for new ideas and collaboration opportunities, both those that are sector specific and those that span several industries, as well as venues where industry can meet public actors, decision makers and academia.


This paper is a part of the work done in the project, “Circular business concepts for recycling of residual products in the steel industry”, which has been funded by Vinnova, Sweden’s Innovation Agency, and the project partners; SSAB Merox, Höganäs Sweden, Boliden Mineral, and Jernkontoret.


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Cite this article as: Sara Rosendahl, Katarina Lundkvist, Björn Haase, Jeanette Stemne, Linn Andersson, Robert Eriksson, Establishing an industrial symbiosis – key factors and time aspects in steel industry, Matériaux & Techniques 107, 508 (2019)

All Tables

Table 1

A matrix study of encouraging and limiting factors when establishing an industrial symbiosis using residual materials. Italic factors are those considered highly influencing for the six different materials. Bold factors appeared in more than one of the six material cases.

Étude matricielle des facteurs encourageants et limitants lors de l’établissement d’une symbiose industrielle utilisant des matières résiduelles. Les facteurs en italique sont ceux considérés comme influençant fortement les six matériaux différents. Des facteurs de style audacieux ont été trouvés dans plus d’un des six cas importants.

All Figures

thumbnail Fig. 1

Identified factors.

Facteurs identifiés.

In the text
thumbnail Fig. 2

Timeline for the establishment of an industrial symbiosis.

Chronologie de l’établissement d’une symbiose industrielle.

In the text

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