Ouroboros, and the Supply Chain

The mythical symbol of the self-devouring serpent is old. We know it’s at least thirty-three centuries old, because it was found among Tutankhamun’s grave goods. We call it Ouroboros, from the Greek οὐροβόρος ὄφις: “tail-devouring snake”. Throughout history, it’s been used as a magical symbol to show something that is unending, or cyclical in nature.

Ouroboros, the tail-devouring snake

Ouroboros, the tail-devouring snake

We live in enlightened times, and very few people believe in such a thing as a snake that eats its own tail. In the age of reason, it’s apparent that no such creature can exist… but what if mankind’s progress is precisely what makes an unending, cyclical pattern an impossibility?

We live in tremendous luxury, but also in a time when thinking about scarcity doesn’t simply mean going hungry if the rain fails, or the winter is a bad one: scarcity means a new kind of poverty that effectively lasts forever. If we use up all the platinum or china clay, or (eventually) oil… that’s it: it’s gone the way of the woolly mammoth, and life on Earth will never again provide us with quite as many options.

Present-day society seeks the unending, too: we call it sustainability. “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” was how the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987) defined sustainability in a report to the United Nations. But how do you achieve that?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to turn away from the things that an industrialised society has given us. I like telecommunications, flying, healthcare, clean drinking water and so on… but the whole industrialised system is predicated upon a series of transactions that each look something like this:

Inputs and outputs for a manufacturing process

Inputs and outputs for a manufacturing process

Whatever you want, there is a price to pay. If you want a product or service, you have to accept that its provision involves the consumption of materials and energy, and the emission of gases, noise, and waste heat. Many processes also create byproducts, or scrap. In many industries it’s normal to pay a company to take these away.

But what if we can find some other business for whom our byproduct is valuable as a feedstock? This is the beginning of industrial symbiosis. It works in exactly the same way as symbiosis in nature, where we see mutual benefits when creatures of different species get along together. There are quite a few places in the world where small fish organise themselves in ‘cleaning stations’, eating parasites, fungus or dead tissue from larger fish, or sea turtles. (Sometimes you can even see the larger fish queuing up, just as if it were a carwash…)

Symbiotic relationship

Symbiotic relationship

It happens among creatures on land, too, and (if it’s truly symbiosis) both creatures benefit. So how do we go about achieving industrial symbiosis?

We can learn a lot from the Kalundborg industrial park in Denmark. It didn’t start out as an ecological initiative, but it evolved into one because it made good financial sense. It’s centred upon several large industries that complement each other beautifully.

Fly ash (the fine particles generated by burning coal) from the Asnæs Power Station is captured and used in cement manufacture. Later, the power plant installed equipment to capture sulphur from its flue gases as well; the resulting calcium sulphate is sold to Gyproc, who use it in the manufacture of plasterboard. Steam from the Asnæs plant is supplied to the nearby Statoil refinery and a pharmaceutical manufacturer, this being a cheaper solution than each running its own boiler system. The refinery, in turn, sends its cooling water to the power station, and instead of simply being burned off, refinery flare gas is sent into the power station as well. Lower-grade waste heat from the power station is piped into the city of Kalundborg, and a nearby fish farm.

Industrial ecology in Kalundborg, Denmark

Industrial ecology in Kalundborg, Denmark (Cervantes, 2007)

And so it continues. There are more partners, and more symbiotic successes than a single article can do justice to. None of this is an act of charity, and none of it is a ‘PR stunt’; it’s done for sound commercial reasons.

Each ‘waste’ material is sufficiently valuable to somebody else that they establish a logistic solution enabling them take it away, and in many cases they pay for it. The refinery employing steam from the power plant and sending its flare gas and cooling effluent back to be made into more steam is a particularly interesting thing, because it hints at a partially ‘closed loop’ supply chain.

Perhaps, if we search hard enough, we will find synergies that don’t just exist in isolated clumps, but which actually form loops and closed circuits. Kalundborg teaches us that if we are clever, the snake can be made to eat its own tail, and the industrial world can be sustained.


Cervantes, G. (2007) “A methodology for teaching industrial ecology”, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 8 Issue: 2, pp.131–141

WCED (1987) Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, available from http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm


One thought on “Ouroboros, and the Supply Chain

  1. Pingback: The Sustainable Supply Chain: One Warehouse at a Time | Capacify

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