Everybody talks about pollution prevention, but almost no one does anything about it. Of course there are individuals who take recycling seriously and who adopt lifestyles that will minimize their personal contribution to the destruction of the planet. There are even corporations (3M comes to mind) who have made substantial commitments to pollution prevention. But where it counts--in the vast majority of corporate board rooms across America-pollution prevention is something everyone applauds and almost no one adopts.
One reason is that for 20 years, government, industry and the environmental movement itself have focused their attention and their money on waste management (managing the stuff after it has been created) rather than pollution prevention (not making the stuff to begin with). Industries typically build expensive treatment plants to remove toxic chemicals from process wastewater, rather than developing processes that either don't create toxic residues or that recycle them for in-plant use. Similarly, incineration is proposed as a solution to landfill shortages rather than municipal regulations to reduce disposable packaging or boost the use of refillable beverage containers.
Pollution prevention is already--on paper--a national goal. The 1984 amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, for example, state that it is the "national policy of the United States that, wherever feasible, the generation of hazardous waste is to be reduced or eliminated as expeditiously as possible."
Moreover, there is a growing body of literature showing that pollution prevention is better for the environment than is pollution treatment. For example, much of the pollution treatment technology developed over the last 20 years merely moves pollutants from one place to another. A great deal of wastewater treatment consists of "air stripping," for example, which really just means turning liquid toxics into air toxics. Incinerators take solid waste and turn it into air pollution, and, through ash landfilling, into water pollution. Waste treatment technology, to a large extent, shifts pollutants around in a sophisticated shell game. Pollution prevention, on the other hand, avoids the whole problem.
There is also a growing body of literature showing that pollution prevention is a practical, near-term approach to environmental protection, one that is particularly well-suited to solid waste management. There are no serious technological obstacles to extensive pollution prevention by both industry and consumers. Furthermore, it generally costs less both socially and economically to reduce or eliminate waste at all stages of a product's life cycle than it does to treat waste after it has been created.
There are five main reasons why pollution prevention is not practiced. First, the initial costs to industry may be quite high, requiring considerable planning and capital investment to minimize raw material and energy usage while creating a minimum of pollutants. Second, since most government regulations focus on end-of-pipe waste treatment, industry has sunk its money into waste management, not pollution prevention. (The Clean Water Act, for example, requires industry to adopt the "best practicable" waste treatment technology.) Third is inertia. A very large industry (including the traditional environmental movement), and a large government bureaucracy, has grown up around pollution treatment and management. This has created large numbers of groups and individuals with a hefty financial stake in maintaining the status quo.
A fifth reason is a definite lack of well-written material telling policymakers what they could do to provide carrots and sticks to move the nation away from pollution treatment and toward pollution prevention.
Now there is a clear, concise guide to pollution prevention for policymakers. It was written for state legislators in Illinois, to help guide their thinking as they struggle to develop public policies to promote pollution prevention. It is called SOLID WASTE MANAGEMENT ALTERNATIVES: REVIEW OF POLICY OPTIONS TO ENCOURAGE WASTE REDUCTION. We'll refer to it as ALTERNATIVES.
ALTERNATIVES makes a crucial distinction between industrial-commercial waste and post-consumer waste. Industrial-commercial waste is unwanted stuff that results from the manufacture and commercial handling of things. Post-consumer waste is stuff that results from our daily lives--things we discard after we have used them (garbage, trash, municipal solid waste). These two types of waste, together, make up the nation's waste problem. They share some common characteristics (generally speaking, they're all dangerous, for example), but there are critical differences between them. From the viewpoint of public policy, they must be viewed and treated separately. Alternatives makes the necessary distinctions, and discusses the policy options available to legislators who want to prevent pollution by avoiding the production of these wastes. Everyone interested in turning off the toxic spigot will find this 70-page report highly useful and thought-provoking.
(More on this report next week.)
Get: Elliott Zimmerman, SOLID WASTE MANAGEMENT ALTERNATIVES:
REVIEW OF POLICY OPTIONS TO ENCOURAGE WASTE REDUCTION.
Springfield, IL: Illinois Department of Energy and Natural
Resources [325 West Adams, Room 300; zip: 62704-1892], Feb.,
1988. Available from: National Technical Information Service,
Springfield, VA 22161; order PB 88-188-560; $15.95. Phone (703)
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: pollution prevention; waste avoidance; waste minimization; 3M;