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13 – Industrial Symbiosis in the Nanning Sugar Co., Ltd in China: expanding the value chain by seeking new symbiotic opportunities

Nanning Sugar Co., Ltd. is one of the largest sugar corporations in China, based in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Guangxi province in Southern Central China). Over the past decades, the company has moved towards a permanent integration of Industrial Symbiosis in its development strategy. While seeking competitive advantage and improving its environmental impact, the company has managed to create a large district dominated by one single industrial sector (sugar production) but also characterised by a high degree of diversity, including alcohol and fertilisers producers, agro industries, cement manufacturers, pulp and paper, wood and chemical companies.

The main challenge that drove Industrial Symbiosis implementation in the case of Nanning Sugar Co., Ltd. was to survive despite the competitive market characterised by scale economies and the high cost of raw materials in China, reducing operational costs and improving sustainability.

The corporation has identified several ways to reuse its wastes and has created multiple value chains over the years. In order to achieve these results, it had to face one main barrier during Industrial Symbiosis implementation process, i.e. the necessity to support normal production and operations only relying on scattered sales modalities. This happened for example when they started to produce pulp from bagasse, but the pulp mill remained underexploited for most of the time, slowly entering an already full market segment.

In order to overcome this barrier, Nanning Sugar Co., Ltd.’s approach was to collaborate with local paper producers in order to found a paper-making base accepting over half of the mill’s production.

The discovery process for Industrial Symbiosis implementation started in 1997 with several adjustments to the production layout. This was needed due to the fact that Chinese industries were at that time organised according to old rules and conventions that were no longer profitable, and prevented them from getting full competitive advantages in a global scale. Having to rethink the business structure of the whole company, Nanning Sugar Co. decided to pursue diversification by reusing part of its waste materials, and started to embed Industrial Symbiosis into its development strategy. First, the corporation decided to turn some of the sugar plants into paper mills for bagasse pulp production. This allowed to face the lack of raw materials for sugar production and also to reduce the environmental impact given by the disposal of huge quantities of bagasse. Second, an alcohol production line was built to make valuable use of molasses as well as a compound fertiliser production line using alcohol slops as input materials. Then, the company started to seek new technological solutions to extend its value chain including new waste derived products. For example, it founded a group working on the resolution of technical barriers preventing the conversion of lime sludge and coal ash generated during the production of bagasse pulp into concrete and cement respectively. This group, after several investigations and experiments, created a new technology allowing the start of two new production lines. In more recent times, the corporation started to expand actively in new materials and products areas, partnering with Universities and Research Centre in order to study new ways of turning waste into downstream products.

One of the main preconditions that allowed Industrial Symbiosis implementation in this case was the popularisation of sustainability issue in China, and the resulting industrial policies that started to push towards sustainable development. In addition, the corporation was always in charge of all the operational aspects of its affiliated and partnering companies, as it directly founded most of them. This allowed to reduce negotiation and trust issues and to speed up the implementation process.

Source: Yang S., Feng N., 2008, “A case study of industrial symbiosis: Nanning Sugar Co., Ltd. in China”. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 52:813-820.

The source contains the description of a fully implemented IS case. The source reports the evaluation of the economic and environmental benefits deriving from IS implementation.
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