Everyone agrees that pollution prevention makes more sense than pollution cleanup or control. If you never make pollution to begin with, you don't need an army of scientists and engineers figuring out what to do about it, you don't need state and federal government "protecting" you with their feeble and bumbling environmental police, you don't need to spend $80 billion per year (which is what industry and government together are spending each year now in the U.S.) on "pollution control." Industry would have fewer black eyes, the health of the American people would be improved, the earth would be relieved, and thousands of Americans now locked in mortal combat with their neighborhood poisoners could go back to leading normal lives or could focus on other public problems.
What will it take to make it happen?
There are two different kinds of polluting wastes: industrial/commercial (the stuff industry throws away or lets leak out), and trash/garbage (the stuff consumers throw away). They two types of waste must be considered differently. This week we'll focus on industrial wastes.
When speaking about industrial pollution, the term "pollution prevention" means the same thing as waste reduction, waste avoidance, or elimination of the generation of pollutants or wastes. Waste management and pollution control mean recycling, treating, or neutralizing wastes, or destroying the hazardous properties of wastes, after they have been generated.
The fundamental basis of every industrial pollution prevention program will have three parts:
(a) defining exactly what "pollution prevention" means. Unfortunately, the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] likes to cloud the picture by speaking of "waste minimization." Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, in two reports, has described the paralyzing confusion caused by EPA's definition, and has clarified nicely how "pollution prevention" should be defined. See RHWN #33.
(b) establishing general, industry-specific and plant-specific pollution reduction goals;
(c) requiring detailed industrial reporting on pollution production and releases. Such reporting should include total pounds, types, and environmental impacts of pollution generated per unit of finished product. It should report all releases to air, water and soil. It should also include a discussion of past performance and future plans. Accurate data reporting could be assured by holding company executives personally responsible for the reports, and providing automatic jail sentences for false reporting. (We use automatic jail sentences for crimes with a gun, and for selling drugs near schools, in New Jersey right now, so don't let anyone tell you such things are untried or are unconstitutional. They're in use and they work.)
Those are the fundamental requirements of any industrial pollution prevention program. There are other policies that could be used as well:
(1) Waste reduction (pollution prevention) performance standards. This would say, for example, you've got to produce 5% less waste per unit of production each year, compared to the previous year. Such a performance standard says what you've got to achieve, but doesn't say anything about what you must do to achieve it.
(2) There could be fines (and, for repeat offenders, jail terms) for not meeting the pollution reduction goals established in part (b) above.
(3) There could be tax concessions offered to industries for capital equipment, increased labor or material costs, etc. that might be needed to prevent pollution. Currently, many laws offer tax concessions and loans for pollution control equipment; such tax concessions work against pollution prevention but this situation could be turned around.
(4) Liability insurance could be denied to firms that don't have pollution prevention plans that they are adhering to. States regulate the insurance industry differently, so this idea would not work in all states today it would in some.
(5) Pollution production could be required as part of normal financial reporting. Any reasonable investor trying to make an informed investment decision has a right to pollution production data because pollution production materially affects a company's (a) waste cleanup liability, criminal liability, and involvement in third-party lawsuits under Superfund; (b) liability associated with worker exposures and transportation accidents; (c) regulatory compliance costs.
(6) In a few cases, companies might be offered "regulatory relief"--delays in enforcement of effluent standards could be used occasionally to encourage industries to pursue pollution prevention. Such regulatory relief would be based on demonstration that the environmental and health benefits of pollution prevention exceed the benefits foregone by regulatory delay.
(7) Stricter waste disposal regulations, to increase the cost and liabilities of pollution, to make the alternative (pollution prevention) more attractive. To make this work, it would have to be combined with strong incentives for, and assistance in, achieving pollution prevention. Simply making waste disposal more expensive, without offering alternatives, might simply increase illegal dumping.
(8) Technology transfer programs. State governments can help industries learn how to prevent pollution. Among other things, such programs could train and certify "pollution auditors" to help industry plan and carry out pollution prevention programs. Such auditors could also (along with the company's top executives) certify a company's compliance with mandatory pollution prevention regulations.
(9) A combined pollution tax/pollution prevention subsidy could be established. The idea would be to establish an "acceptable" level of pollution for companies in a given industry. Companies producing pollution at that level would not be taxed and would not be subsidized. Somewhere above the "acceptable" level would be a "control level." Companies producing pollution in amounts between the "acceptable" level and the "control" level would be taxed at progressively higher rates per unit of pollution as they got up toward the control level. Pollution above the control level would be entirely unacceptable and would be subject to strict enforcement.
Companies producing less pollution than the "acceptable" level would receive a progressively larger subsidy as their pollution approached zero. These subsidies would be paid for by taxes collected from companies polluting above the "acceptable" level. Smaller firms might be given larger subsidies for a given amount of pollution prevention because technical information and capital financing are harder for them to acquire.
These ideas are almost all taken from the excellent report by
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.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: waste reduction; waste avoidance; pollution prevention; public policy; sensible public policies; regulation; taxation;