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Pollution prevention

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Pollution prevention, or P2, shifts the emphasis from controlling pollution once it has been created to preventing its creation in the first place. The origin of P2 can be traced to the US manufacturer 3M, which in 1975 instituted a program called 'Pollution Prevention Pays' (3P) in an effort to eliminate pollution at source. Between 1975 and 1999, the scheme has saved 3M an estimated $827 million, and eliminated more than 800,000 tonnes of pollutants.

Since then, the concept has been endorsed by a large number of companies worldwide. In practice, P2 programmes concentrate on replacing expensive end-of-pipe solutions with approaches that avoid creating waste in the first place. They include waste minimization, recycling, energy recovery and zero-emission processes. In addition, P2 encompasses waste treatment and remediation measures.

There are several definitions of pollution prevention. The Canadian government defines it as the use of processes, practices, materials, products or energy sources that avoid or minimize the creation of pollutants and waste, and reduce the risk to human health and the environment.

In the US, the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 and Executive Order 12856 define pollution prevention as any practice which reduces the amount of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant entering any waste stream or otherwise released into the environment.

Pollution prevention represents the first step in a hierarchy of options for managing waste, ranging from the most to least desirable.

Both large and small companies can prevent pollution through operational or technical changes. The techniques available can be divided into four categories:

  1. Good housekeeping - including efficient operation of machinery, monitoring of raw material flows, segregating waste, and training staff;
  2. Materials substitution - such as phasing out CFCs, and switching from solvent-based paints to water-based alternatives;
  3. Manufacturing modifications - including cutting the number of processes or switching from chemical to mechanical, and introducing closed-loop processing;
  4. Resource recovery - for example re-using pollutants in the same process, and selling waste by-product as raw materials in other industries.

Shifting from managing to preventing pollution can be good for both the environment and the bottom line. Companies are realizing that pollution is a symptom of inefficiency, and that waste is often valuable raw material. The growing costs of waste disposal and remediation make a compelling case for improvement.

When products and processes are designed to avoid pollution and waste, tremendous savings are possible. For example, the 400-employee Norsk Hydro magnesium production facility in Quebec invested $200,000 in effluent probes and computer monitoring equipment, and has saved more than $5 million to date in raw material and effluent treatment costs.

In 1988, a Canadian telecom company Nortel committed itself to phasing out the use of CFC-113 in manufacturing by 1991. Between 1988 and 1991, it eliminated the use of one million kilograms of CFC-113, saving $4 million for an investment of $1 million.

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