Industrial Symbiosis and its Constriction to Developed Countries

Studying sustainability is too often accompanied by frustration. In the second row of my environmental design debates course, I sat with a fiery, fast-chugging train of thought as we addressed the theory and implementation of industrial symbiosis. The idea of industrial symbiosis connotes taking on a cyclical approach to waste management — by intaking waste and generating energy and heat in closed-system facilities, humans could maximize use of disposed natural and manufactured resources without further degrading nature. North European nations like Sweden boast remarkable facilities that processes landfill and recyclable wastes and churns out energy, simultaneously recycling metals and choking up only 1% of the waste it receives. At first, this sounded remarkable from a Western, post-industrial perspective — even I was primarily dazzled by the incredible innovation behind these projects and the potential to right a century of human wrongs.

However, awash in the harsh light of the projector screen and assaulted by the tinkle of creative commons music, as I read the video-recorded, babbling lips of industrial investors and facility employees and really, truly listened to their gushing praise of technology as the cure for the accumulation of human waste, my throat filled up. Aside from the effective application of industrial symbiosis in reducing waste output, I realized just how narrow-minded, elitist, and isolated this possibility was. Some third world countries have only just grown dependent on industrial manufacturing as the backbone of their economy, and poor nations continue to accept international waste shipments to continue providing and rationing resources for their impoverished people. Industrial ecology becomes secondary to fulfilling basic human needs and governing principles, such as parents feeding their families by earning the barest of wages, or nation officials grappling with the trade-off between economy and environment.

photo by N. Wootton,

After spending more than half my life in South Vietnam, I’ve confronted unsettling sights that trouble me to this day — I’ve seen waste imports piling up like alps in the outskirts of the city; hunched female factory laborers clustering onto buses at the crack of dawn, heading to factories to earn their living; dusty cyclists buying plastic scraps for five cents apiece to resell at recycling hubs. There, environmental education is a gift for the foreign-born and upper-class, while people in poverty are still struggling to make it in a country increasingly fueled by industrialized mass production. While Western nations preach waste as a commodity in energy generation, developing nations will have to deal with both imported and locally produced waste as an ever-expanding issue. I am aware of the environmental injustices set in stone by economic inequalities; however, I don’t believe our world has to continue to diverge this way. I believe in the power of community and shared knowledge, of overcoming barriers together instead of letting the disadvantaged play catch-up.