How Sweden's most sustainable industrial cluster was created

Sotenäs Municipality turned the challenge of negative environmental impact of local industry into a sustainable local development strategy with the help of a group of local entrepreneurs, enthusiastic municipal officials and research-based methods. Today the symbiosis in Sotenäs may be Sweden's best example of a circular economy.

Renahav presents its biogasplant during the Biogastour of 2021. Renahav presents its biogasplant during the Biogastour of 2021.

Sotenäs symbioscentrum (in English, the Sotenäs Symbiosis Centre) is beautifully located in the pink granite landscape of the Swedish west coast. From the offices, you have an open view until the sea meets the horizon. The municipality of Sotenäs has just 9,000 year-round residents, but during one month every summer, a million visitors flock to Smögen, its most famous village. Fishing has always been the most important industry in the municipality, and Smögen is home to the country’s second largest fish auction. Three of Swedens most important seafood processing plants are also located within the municipality. 

But in the 2010s, the fishing industry in Sotenäs had become too large for the local environment. The environmental permits for the seafood processing companies Leröy, Marenor (then Domsten) and Orkla (then Abba) would not allow the increased release of process water into the sea. Additionally, more than 15,000 tonnes of sludge and fish trimmings were sent to biogas facilities in Norway, Denmark and distant locations in Sweden, producing large emissions of CO2. The conditions of the environmental permits risked forcing the companies to move their facilities away, if greater volumes of process water could not be handled in the local area.

In 2011 a number of events transpired which, nine years later, would lead to the little municipality being named Sweden’s most innovative municipality. Joel Oresten, Claes Lundberg and Bengt Gunnarsson had all worked at Orkla, and had grown up in the region. Under the name Rena havs intressenter they pitched their idea of building a biogas facility in combination with a wastewater purification plant, where the waste from the local fishing industry could generate fuel, heat and electricity and the water could simultaneously be cleaned and circulated, and be reused. This would enable the industrial activity to grow without increasing its emissions, and the municipality would be able to retain its largest employer. 

“It has worked well because we had those relationships. They trusted us in another way than if a major international gas company had delivered the same proposal. We have excellent collaborations, we have good contracts and we’ve regulated exactly what we bill for. We take waste, mainly fish trimmings, which passes through our biogas facility. The resulting gas and hot water we sell back to the industries”, says Joel Oresten.

Graphics over Renahavs industrial symbiosis.Graphics over Renahavs industrial symbiosis. From Renahavs website.

The fishing industry uses the gas and hot water – instead of fossil fuels – for the preparation process, for water purification and for heating the buildings. Inside the premises of Rena havs intressenter, graphics show live statistics of what is being fed into the biogas facility, and what is produced and sold. The digestate from the biogas plant is used as fertilizer in regional farms – reducing their costs and enabling transition to organic cultivation. The symbiotic network will further expand with the integration of Smögen Lax – land-based salmon farm that will use recirculating aquatic system technology and currently waiting to obtain its permit –and Swedish Algae Factory – a specialized chemicals producers extracted from special strains of micro-algae cultivated in the effluents of the salmon farm. 

“I wish I could say we’ve come up with something no one else has thought of, but that’s not the case. This is very simple – it should be everywhere”, says Joel.

Formation of the Symbiosis Centre

Around the same time as Rena havs intressenter was founded, the idea of a symbiosis centre began to take form at Sotenäs Municipality, which at the time was developing a vision for its sustainability work. At this point, the initial ambition was to create a meeting place for local businesses and the municipal upper secondary and adult education programme, Lifelong learning. When municipal officials attended a presentation on industrial symbiosis given by business adviser Innovatum and the consultancy KanEnergi, they learned new concepts and methodology relevant to the ideas they had themselves – that is, an industrial and social symbiosis centre where materials, energy and knowledge are exchanged between multiple actors. The presentation was given by former student from Linköping University Peter Carlsson, who had experience of industrial symbiosis from his university studies.

Peter took the interested municipal officials, Leif Andreasson and Per Svensson, to Kalundborg, Denmark, to study a symbiosis network that had been developed in the 1970s. It had emerged as a solution to problems with the groundwater in the area, a risk that the officials from Sotenäs had also identified in their own municipality. The trip was a success, and already in the car on the way home the officials sketched up a possible structure for the municipality’s industrial symbiosis. In the sketch, the newly founded Rena havs intressenter was at the centre. As they continued home they reasoned that it was indeed possible to create a symbiosis in the real world, as the Kalundborg example had shown, and that they could create one in Sotenäs too. 

The industrial symbioscenter of Sotenäs.Sotenäs Symbiosis Centre is close to the nearby marine industri. Foto: John Marthinson.

“Peter was one of the key people during the start-up phase and triggered the symbiosis work and helped set its future direction. His ideas were well-received and supported by Per and Leif, who are experts in turning good ideas into action. They understood very well what had to be done, he had a clear vision and have been amazing partners during those years”, says Murat Mirata, senior lecturer at the Department of Management and Engineering, Linköping University.

Linköping University came into contact with Sotenäs after a student group travelled there in 2014 to analyse the development of the industrial park. The following year, LiU hosted a workshop in industrial symbiosis, to which Leif and Per brought their energy and enthusiasm. The workshop led to the formation of the Swedish Network for Industrial and Urban Symbiosis (Svenska Nätverket för Industriell och Urban Symbios (SNIUS)), with the Sotenäs municipality being one of the founding members. Following this, Prof Mats Eklund, who has vast knowledge on what makes and breaks industrial symbiosis, worked closely with Leif and Per and assisted their efforts to secure support from local politicians for establishing a Symbiosis center. The Symbiosis Center was established in 2018. Since then the collaboration between Linköping University and the symbiosis centre has continued with joint projects, discussions and study visits. This exchange of knowledge has been equally important for both parties.

“Leif and Per were already headed in the right direction when we met. They’ve always sought out knowledge and new research, and we’ve helped them with this. We’ve tried to refine their ideas using knowledge-based methods; in this way we've helped streamline and legitimise their initiative. Several of our students have conducted analyses for them, under our supervision, which has also aided development in a different way. One thing we have emphasised is the need for a framework that can systematically support the companies, and to not view this as a project with a start and a finish, but rather as a growing process”, says Murat.

The work at Sotenäs progresses continually, and interest in what is going on there keeps growing. Several large industrial companies are keen to be involved, and the centre receives an increasing numbers of visits from Swedish parliamentarians, business leaders and other actors who want to learn about circular economy. Now, people are coming to the region not only as tourists, but also to discover how collaboration between the business sector, the public sector and academia can generate win-win situations.

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