Seeing the possibilities and making them happen is what pollution prevention is all about. It is a commitment to products and processes that have a minimal impact on the environment.
Pollution prevention is not a new idea. It is the manifestation of an environmental ethic that was practised by the original inhabitants of many cultures, including Native Americans. They lived in harmony with their environment. It was the source of their shelter, their food and the very foundation of their religion. Although their environment was exceedingly harsh, it was treated with honour and respect.
As nations developed and the Industrial Revolution advanced, a very different attitude toward the environment emerged. Society came to view the environment as an endless source of raw materials and a convenient dumping ground for wastes.
Early Efforts to Reduce Waste
Even so, some industries have practised a type of pollution prevention since the first chemical processes were developed. Initially, industry focused on efficiency or increasing process yield through waste reduction, rather than specifically preventing pollution by keeping wastes from entering the environment. However, the end result of both activities is the same—less material waste is released to the environment.
An early example of pollution prevention under another guise was practised in a German sulphuric acid production facility during the 1800s. Process improvements at the plant reduced the amount of sulphur dioxide emitted per pound of product produced. These actions were most likely labelled as efficiency or quality improvements. Only recently has the concept of pollution prevention been directly associated with this type of process change.
Pollution prevention as we know it today began to emerge in the mid-1970s in response to the growing volume and complexity of environmental requirements. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created then. The first efforts at pollution reduction were mostly installations of end-of-pipe or costly add-on pollution control equipment. Eliminating the source of a pollution problem was not a priority. When it occurred, it was more a matter of profit or efficiency than an organized effort to protect the environment.
Only recently have businesses adopted a more specific environmental point of view and kept track of progress. However, the processes by which businesses approach pollution prevention can differ significantly.
Prevention versus Control
In time, the focus began to change from pollution control to pollution prevention. It became apparent that the scientists who invent the products, engineers who design the equipment, process experts who operate the manufacturing facilities, marketers who work with customers to improve product environmental performance, sales representatives who bring environmental concerns from customers back to the laboratory for solutions and office employees who work to reduce paper usage all can help reduce the environmental impact of operations or activities under their control.
Developing effective pollution prevention programmes
In state-of-the-art pollution prevention, pollution prevention programmes as well as specific pollution prevention technologies must be examined. Both the overall pollution prevention programme and the individual pollution prevention technologies are equally important in achieving environmental benefit. While the development of technologies is an absolute requirement, without the organizational structure to support and implement those technologies, the environmental benefits will never be fully achieved.
The challenge is to obtain total corporate participation in pollution prevention. Some companies have implemented pollution prevention at every level of their organization through well organized, detailed programmes. Perhaps the three most widely recognized of these in the United States are 3M’s Pollution Prevention Pays (3P) programme, Chevron’s Save Money and Reduce Toxics (SMART) and Dow Chemical’s Waste Reduction Always Pays (WRAP).
The goal of such programmes is to reduce waste as much as technologically possible. But relying on source reduction alone is not always technically feasible. Recycling and reuse also must be part of the pollution prevention effort, as they are in the above programmes. When every employee is asked not only to make processes as efficient as possible, but also to find a productive use for every by-product or residual stream, pollution prevention becomes an integral part of the corporate culture.
In late 1993, The Business Roundtable in the US released the results of a pollution prevention benchmark study of successful efforts. The study identified best-in-class facility pollution prevention programmes and highlighted elements necessary to fully integrate pollution prevention into company operations. Included were facilities from Proctor & Gamble (P&G), Intel, DuPont, Monsanto, Martin Marietta and 3M.
Pollution prevention initiatives
The study found that successful pollution prevention programmes in these companies shared the following elements:
- top management support
- involvement of all employees
- recognition of accomplishments
- facilities had freedom to choose the best method to reach corporate goals
- transfer of information between facilities
- measurement of results
- all included recycling and reuse of waste.
In addition, the study found that each of the facilities had advanced from concentrating on pollution prevention in the manufacturing process to integrating pollution prevention in pre-manufacturing decisions. Pollution prevention had become a core corporate value.
Top management support is a necessity for a fully operational pollution prevention programme. Top officials at both the corporate and facility levels must send a strong message to all employees that pollution prevention is an integral part of their jobs. This must begin at the chief executive officer (CEO) level because that person sets the tone for all corporate activities. Speaking out publicly and within the company gets the message heard.
The second reason for success is employee involvement. Technical and manufacturing people are most involved in develop-ing new processes or product formulations. But employees in every position can be involved in waste reduction through reuse, reclamation and recycling as part of pollution prevention. Employees know the possibilities in their area of responsibility much better than environmental professionals. In order to spur employee involvement, the company must educate employees about the challenge the company faces. For example, articles on environmental issues in the corporate newsletter can increase employee awareness.
Recognition of accomplishments can be done in many ways. The CEO of 3M presents a special environmental leadership award not only to employees who contribute to the company’s goals, but also to those who contribute to community environmental efforts. In addition, environmental achievements are recognized in annual performance reviews.
Measuring results is extremely important because that is the driving force for employee action. Some facilities and corporate programmes measure all wastes, while others focus on Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) emissions or on other measurements which best fit within their corporate culture and their specific pollution prevention programmes.
Environmental Programme Examples
Over the course of 20 years, pollution prevention has become imbedded in 3M’s culture. 3M management pledged to go beyond government regulations, in part by developing environmental management plans that merge environmental goals with business strategy. The 3P programme focused on preventing pollution, not control.
The idea is to stop pollution before it starts, and seek out prevention opportunities at all stages of a product’s life, not just at the end. Successful companies recognize that prevention is more environmentally effective, more technically sound and less costly than conventional control procedures, which do not eliminate the problem. Pollution prevention is economical, because if pollution is avoided in the first place, it does not have to be dealt with later.
3M employees have developed and implemented more than 4,200 pollution prevention projects since the inception of the 3P programme. Over the past 20 years, these projects have resulted in the elimination of more than 1.3 billion pounds of pollutants and saved the company $750 million.
Between 1975 and 1993, 3M reduced the amount of energy needed per unit of production by 3,900 BTUs, or 58%. The annual energy savings for 3M in the United States alone totals 22 trillion BTUs each year. This is enough energy to heat, cool and light more than 200,000 homes in the United States and eliminates more than 2 million tons of carbon dioxide. And in 1993, 3M facilities in the United Sates recovered and recycled more solid waste (199 million pounds) than they sent to landfills (198 million pounds).
Pollution Prevention Technologies
The concept of designing for the environment is becoming important, but technologies used for pollution prevention are as diverse as the companies themselves. In general, this concept can be realized through technical innovation in four areas:
- product reformulation—developing nonpolluting or lesspolluting products or processes by using different raw materials
- process modification—changing manufacturing processes so they become nonpolluting or less polluting
- equipment redesign—modifying equipment to perform better under specific operating conditions or to make use of available resources
- resource recovery—recycling by-products for sale or for use by other companies or for use in the company’s other products or processes.
Concentrated efforts in each of these areas can mean new and safer products, cost savings and greater customer satisfaction.
Product reformulation can be the most difficult. Many of the attributes which make materials ideal for their intended uses may also contribute to problems for the environment. One example of product reformulation led a team of scientists to eliminate the ozone-depleting chemical methyl chloroform from a fabric protector product. This new water-based product greatly reduces the use of solvents and gives the company a competitive edge in the marketplace.
In making medication tablets for the pharmaceutical industry, employees developed a new water-based coating solution for the solvent-based coating solution that had been used to coat the tablets. The change cost $60,000, but eliminated the need to spend $180,000 for pollution control equipment, saves $150,000 in material cost and prevents 24 tons a year of air pollution.
An example of process modification resulted in a move away from hazardous chemicals to thoroughly clean copper sheeting prior to using it to make electric products. In the past, the sheeting was cleaned by a spray with ammonium persulphate, phosphoric acid and sulphuric acid—all hazardous chemicals. This procedure has been replaced by one that employs a light citric acid solution, a nonhazardous chemical. The process change eliminated the generation of 40,000 pounds of hazardous waste per year and saves the company about $15,000 per year in raw material and disposal costs.
Redesigning equipment also reduces waste. In the resin product area, a company regularly sampled a particular liquid phenolic resin by using a tap on the process flow line. Some of the product was wasted before and after the sample was collected. By installing a simple funnel under the sample tape and a pipe leading back to the process, the company now takes samples without any loss of product. This prevents about 9 tons of waste per year, saves about $22,000, increases the yield and decreases the disposal cost, all for a capital cost of about $1,000.
Resource recovery, the productive use of waste material, is extremely important in pollution prevention. One brand of wool soap pads is now made entirely of post-consumer recycled plastic soda bottles. In the first two years of this new product, the company used in excess of a million pounds of this recycled material to make soap pads. This is the equivalent of more than 10 million two-litre soda bottles. Also, waste rubber trimmed from floor mats in Brazil is used to make sandals. In 1994 alone, the plant recovered about 30 tons of material, enough to make more than 120,000 pairs of sandals.
In another example, Post-it(T) Recycled Paper Notes use 100% recycled paper. One ton of recycled paper alone saves 3 cubic yards of landfill space, 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water and 4,100 kilowatt hours of energy, enough to heat the average home for six months.
Life-Cycle Analysis or a similar process is in place at every successful company. This means that each phase of a product’s life cycle from development through manufacturing, use and disposal offers opportunities for environmental improvement. The response to such environmental challenges has led to products with strong environmental claims throughout industry.
For example, P&G was the first commercial-goods manufacturer to develop concentrated detergents which require 50 to 60% smaller packaging than the previous formula. P&G also manufacturers refills for more than 57 brands in 22 countries. Refills typically cost less and save up to 70% in solid waste.
Dow has developed a new highly effective herbicide that is non-toxic. It is less risky for people and animals and is applied in ounces rather than pounds per acre. Using biotechnology, Monsanto developed a potato plant that is resistant to insects, so it reduced the need for chemical insecticides. Another herbicide from Monsanto helps restore the natural habitat of wetlands by controlling weeds in a safer way.
Commitment to a Cleaner Environment
It is critical that we approach pollution prevention on a comprehensive scale, including commitment to both programmatic and technological improvements. Increasing efficiency or process yield and reducing waste production has long been a practice of the manufacturing industry. However, only within the last decade have these activities focused more directly on pollution prevention. Substantial efforts are now aimed at improving source reduction as well as tailoring processes to separate, recycle and reuse by-products. All these are proven pollution prevention tools.