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
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
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
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) 487-4650.
Descriptor terms: pollution prevention; waste avoidance; waste