Academic Research

Using Private Property Rights to Avoid ‘Wasting’ Waste in the Linköping and Norrköping Industrial Symbiosis Network

Property rights in waste – in essence who owns waste and how waste can be used – are a key consideration in how waste is conceived and treated. Yet, they are not consciously engaged with to promote reuse, recycling, or recovery of waste. This post covers how private property rights are currently being used to facilitate the looping of wastes in one particular case study in Sweden.

By Dr Katrien Steenmans, Lecturer in Law, Coventry Law School and Research Associate, Centre for Business in Society

We are producing unsustainable amounts of waste at the same time that we are running out of resources.1 There are therefore increasing calls to transition to a circular economy – in which we move away from the traditional linear take-make-dispose approach towards the prevention and ‘looping’ of wastes and resources through reuse, recycling and other recovery – in order to avoid ‘wasting’ waste and reconceiving wastes as resources.

Much research has been and currently is being undertaken in order to understand how we can facilitate the transitions towards circular economies. One of the legal mechanisms I consider in my research is property. There are multiple reasons for my focus on property, but the main motivation is that who owns, controls and is responsible for wastes and other resources determines in part what is possible with wastes and resources within circular economies.

In this post, I briefly examine the role of private property within a particular case study. Private property has been described as ‘that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe’.2 The selected case study is a particular manifestation of the circular economy: the linked symbiotic networks in Linköping and Norrköping in Östergötland County, which is in central Sweden.3 In industrial symbiosis, wastes and resources are exchanged between different (and often co-located) organisations for economic, environmental and social benefits, such as: resource security as a result of increasing availability of local resources; increased revenues as a result of resource sharing and material efficiencies in production; resource savings; reduced greenhouse gas emissions; materials diverted from landfill; strengthened business relations; and new employment opportunities.

On Händelö island of Norrköping, there is a symbiosis of material and energy flows between several biofuels and bioenergy industries.4 This network centres around E.ON, an electric utility company. E.ON provides steam to Lantmännen Agroetanol AB, a biorefinery, for production of ethanol and to the municipality of Norrköping, while the municipality provides E.ON with waste to be incinerated in its combined heat and power plant together with biomass from the paper industry. Stillage, which is a syrup, from Agroetanol is used by Svensk Biogas in both Norrköping and Linköping, linking the two networks. The biogas produced is used by all public bus transport and taxis in Linköping and Norrköping.5 In Linköping, Tekniska Verken is a central symbiont with a number of materials received and provided by them. These networks are shown below.

Linköping and Norrköping industrial symbioses.6

Linköping-Norrköping industrial symbioses are controlled by contracts, covering prices and other terms.7 The wastes and other resources covered by these are predominantly treated as private property, with the only exception the resources from the Cities of Linköping and Norrköping that are considered state property. Within this example, the private property regime has facilitated the reuse and recovery of wastes and resources through commodification: it is because entities own and control their wastes that they are able to sell and exchange them.

There are also many other existing enabling factors. One of which is, in contrast to the private property in wastes and resources, it is communal information and knowledge that enables the development of symbiotic exchanges:

when it comes to waste … we can call whatever city and ask for prices and how they think, how they have planned, ones they have deals with, who are doing what they should and who are not. [There is] total openness and a willingness to make things better for everyone. It’s really almost too good to be true.

Interview participant

This openness and trust has extended to the sharing of contracts covering symbiotic exchanges with researchers at higher education institutions, which continues to enable the development of the network. The trust is further highlighted by the contracts in the food industry not always being up to date, though this can also be explained by a lack of competition for the food industry for the purpose of the industrial symbiosis network.8

A critical challenge of the existing private property in these wastes is that it does not incentivise, and may even inhibit, the prevention of waste. There is a risk of lock in, as the networks rely on the continued production of waste. This issue has materialised in relation to district heating within Sweden. Swedish district heating systems rely on household waste, but insufficient amounts are produced within Sweden, resulting in the importation of wastes from countries with less efficient recycling.9 The system lock in and the financial benefit gained from selling their own wastes mean that there is little incentive in the Linköping-Norrköping industrial symbioses to reduce waste. Other property regimes should therefore be considered.

Examples of different property regimes and more detail of the above post is provided in my recently published article entitled ‘Do Property Rights in Waste and By-products Matter for Promoting Reuse, Recycling and Recovery? Lessons Learnt from Northwestern Europe’, which has been published open access in Current Environmental Research in Sustainability and is available here.

You can find out more about Katrien’s research through her Pure profile, which sets out her research interests, publications, and contact details. You can also find out more about Coventry University’s research through our dedicated research pages.


  1. Eg Silpa Kaza, Perinaz Bhada-Tata and Frank Van Woerden, What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050 (World Bank 2018). Available here; Stuart Kirsch, ‘Running Out? Rethinking Resource Depletion’ (2020) 7(3) The Extractive Industries and Society 838.
  2. William Blackstone, II Commentaries on the Laws of England (Clarendon Press 1765-1769) ch 1, 2.
  3. This post is based on research conducted between 2013-2018 as part of my doctoral research: Katrien Steenmans, ‘Enabling Industrial Symbiosis through Regulations, Policies, and Property Rights’ (PhD thesis, University of Surrey 2018). Available here.
  4. Michael Martin and Mats Eklund, ‘Improving the Environmental Performance of Biofuels with Industrial Symbiosis’ (2011) 35(5) Biomass and Bioenergy 1747, 1750.
  5. Leo Baas, ‘Östergötland: Towards a Sustainable Region on the Basis of Industrial Symbiosis and Renewable Energy’ (16th Annual International Sustainable Development Research Conference, May 2010, Hong Kong). Available here.
  6. Adapted from Baas (n 4) 4 ; Michael Martin, ‘Industrial Symbiosis for the Development of Biofuel Production’ (Tech. Licentiate thesis, Linköping University 2010) 28-29; Martin and Eklund (n 3) 1752.
  7. Murat Mirata, Mats Eklund and Andreas Gundberg, ‘Industrial Symbiosis and Biofuels Industry: Business Value and Organisational Factors within Cases of Ethanol and Biogas Production’ (March 2017) The Swedish Knowledge Centre for Renwable Transportation Fuels f3. Available here. Confirmed by anonymous interview participants – see Steenmans (n 2).
  8. Anonymous interview participants – see Steenmans (n 2).
  9. Eg Sveriges Radio, ‘Sweden Imports More and More Waste’ (18 February 2014) <> accessed 9 March 2021; Amy Yee, ‘In Sweden, Trash Heats Homes, Powers Buses and Fuels Taxi Fleets’ NY Times (21 September 2018) <> accessed 9 March 2021.

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