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Cleaner production

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Used in conjunction with other elements of environmental management, cleaner production is a practical method for protecting human and environmental health, and for supporting the goal of sustainable development.

Production with no regard for environmental impacts creates water and air pollution, soil degradation, and large-scale global impacts such as acid rain, global warming and ozone depletion. To create more sustainable methods of production, there needs to be a shift in attitudes away from control towards pollution prevention and management.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) introduced the concept of cleaner production in 1989, and defined it as 'the continuous application of an integrated preventive environmental strategy applied to processes, products and services to increase eco-efficiency and reduce risks to humans and the environment'.

Cleaner production activities include measures such as pollution prevention, source reduction, waste minimization and eco-efficiency. They involve better management and housekeeping, substitution of toxic and hazardous materials, process modifications, and reuse of waste products. At its heart, the concept is about the prevention, rather than the control, of pollution.

The concept of cleaner production questions the need for a particular product, and looks at other ways to satisfy the demand. It is a slowing down of the rate at which we use resources, and a gradual shift from linear to more circular processes, similar to those found in nature. The eventual goal of clean production is to achieve a 'closed loop' operation in which all excess materials are recycled back into the process.

The four elements of cleaner production are:

  1. The precautionary approach - potential polluters must prove that a substance or activity will do no harm;
  2. The preventive approach - preventing pollution at the source rather than after it has been created;
  3. Democratic control - workers, consumers, and communities all have access to information and are involved in decision-making;
  4. Integrated and holistic approach - addressing all material, energy and water flows using life-cycle analyses.

The benefits of cleaner production include decreased waste, the recovery of valuable by-products, improved environmental performance, increased resource productivity, increased efficiency, lower energy consumption, and an overall reduction in costs.

Implementing cleaner production can be as straightforward as adopting better housekeeping practices, or it may involve more complex measures associated with processes and products. The more sophisticated options may include switching to renewable energy sources, increasing material efficiency, and re-using and recycling by-products. The product itself can be designed to reduce consumption of resources, to prolong its useful life, and to allow disassembly and recycling of its component parts.

Cleaner production requires a new way of thinking about processes and products, and about how they can be made less harmful to humans and the environment. For successful implementation, the concept must be effectively communicated within the organization. Employees at all levels, including senior management, should be actively involved.

The following guidelines can be used to implement a cleaner production approach:

  1. Identify the hazardous substance to be phased out, on the basis of the precautionary principle;
  2. Undertake a chemical/material flow analysis;
  3. Establish a time schedule for the phase-out of the hazardous substance in the production process, as well as its accompanying waste management technology;
  4. Implement and further develop cleaner production processes and products;
  5. Provide training and technical and financial support;
  6. Actively disseminate information to the public and ensure their participation in decision-making;
  7. Facilitate substance phase-out with regulatory and economic incentives;
  8. Facilitate the transition to cleaner production with social planning, involving workers and communities affected.

The cost of complying with environmental legislation can be significantly reduced by companies that adopt cleaner production techniques. The latter are often more cost-effective than control technologies. The costs of dealing with wastes are reduced, and there is potential for new markets to be discovered through innovations or the sale of by-products.

Cleaner production can reduce environmental risks and liabilities and lead to greater competitiveness. By demonstrating a commitment to cleaner production, companies can also improve their public image and gain the confidence of consumers.

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