What happens when industries work together to reduce waste? A lot of good for the planet, as seen in the Danish city of Kalundborg – home of the world’s first and largest Eco-Industrial Park, or EIP.

In Kalundborg, surplus heat from the Asneas coal-fired power station is used to heat a nearby fish farm, reducing thermal pollution of the local fjord. This heat also warms 3,500 nearby homes, and sludge from the farm is sold as fertilizer. Meanwhile, the power station creates steam which is used by a pharmaceutical manufacturer as a cleaning agent and an oil refinery for its particular purposes. The condensation is fed back to the power station, which has a special use for that byproduct. The station features a scrubber to remove sulfur dioxide from its emissions, a process that creates gypsum which is sold to a wallboard manufacturer, replacing gypsum mined from a pit.

In all, there are 30 different exchanges of materials among 50 different processes of the participating companies. The end result is as good as it gets – operational costs are substantially cut, while CO2 emissions are substantially reduced along with other ecological stress.

But the Kalundborg EIP did not arise out of a plan. At the center of the activity is the power station, which was started up in 1959.  But the first sharing of resources did not happen until 1972, and coordination steadily increased after that. The close proximity of the initial companies made things easier, but a spirit of cooperation was apparently a more important factor – a spirit not always found in corporate circles.

Most of the nine companies of today’s operation have been part of the EIP since 1993, but nothing quite like Kalundborg has arisen elsewhere. There are, however, many smaller EIPs and Kalundborg is getting a lot of attention these days.  The European Commission, an executive arm of the EU, promotes the city’s model as part of its $87 billion innovation and growth project. Delegations from many countries visit Kalundborg, and construction of an EIP of comparable size is funded and under construction in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong and Europe are natural locations because the geographic area available for industry is more limited. Existing companies that take interest in EIPs are more likely to find partners nearby, and there is less isolated space for new industrial plants.

But using, recovering, and redirecting resources can be arranged by companies not in close proximity to each other. That type of coordination, while not as efficient, can also result in a significant payoff, and there is more focus on that model in larger countries such as the US. The ultimate goal, of course, is for the Industrial complex of the entire planet to work in this type of harmony. That idea is far from becoming reality, but at least it has reached the drawing board. Kalundborg just may be the model for the clean, green future we need to sustain life for the next generations.