Closing loops by intercompany recycling of by-products is a core theme of industrial ecology (IE). This article considers whether industrial recycling networks or industrial symbiosis projects can be used as a starting point for much broader intercompany cooperation for sustainable development. Evidence presented is based on the results of an empirical investigation of the recycling network Styria in Austria, the recycling network Oldenburger Münsterland in Germany, and the manufacturing sector in Austria.
Statistical analysis shows that the percentage of by-products that are passed on to other companies for recycling purposes is not higher in member companies of the recycling networks than in the other companies of the manufacturing sector in Austria. In terms of cooperation, the relationships with the respective recycling partners are found to be very similar to regular customer relations. Furthermore, the companies of the recycling networks remain unaware of the network to which they belong. Instead, one of the main findings of this study is that intercompany recycling activities are regarded by the company representatives as bilateral market transactions, not as collaborative network activities.
This has potentially significant implications for the use of industrial symbiosis networks as starting points for sustainability networks with broader cooperation toward sustainability. The findings raise interesting questions as to whether such broader cooperation might result from a conscious planning process or might emerge largely spontaneously as part of normal market coordination. In any case, intercompany recycling is clearly considered to be a very important field of collaborative action for sustainability in industry.