What is Pollution Prevention?

US EPA Waste Management Hierarchy including pollution prevention
A version of the U.S. EPA Waste Management Hierarchy showing pollution prevention. See https://www.epa.gov/smm/sustainable-materials-management-non-hazardous-materials-and-waste-management-hierarchy for the more typical version.

September is a time to think about pollution prevention, aka P2, because the third week of September every year is celebrated as Pollution Prevention (P2) Week in the U.S. In 2023, P2 Week will be September 18-22. As you mark your calendar, you may ask yourself—what exactly is pollution prevention, and how can I contribute to the effort?

First, let’s take a moment to consider what pollution itself is. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines pollution as “any substances in water, soil, or air that degrade the natural quality of the environment, offend the senses of sight, taste, or smell, or cause a health hazard. The usefulness of the natural resource is usually impaired by the presence of pollutants and contaminants.” So, pollution is the contamination of the environment by potentially harmful substances. If you think of a polluted environment as analogous to a human body with harmful chemicals in it or disease, then it’s easy to think of pollution prevention as analogous to disease prevention. You’ve probably heard the old quote from Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Although Franklin was talking about the prevention of house fires, in modern times, the phrase has come to be used in the sense of health care. It means that taking preventative measures (e.g., exercising, watching what you eat, getting enough sleep, etc.) is a much more sensible strategy to take, wherever possible, than waiting until disease sets in and then working to treat it. It’s far better to avoid a problem than to have to try to solve the problem afterward.

Thus, pollution prevention is the sensible strategy of preventing the release of harmful substances into the environment, aka source reduction, to avoid the negative impacts of pollution and the cost, time, energy, and other resources that would otherwise need to be expended on environmental clean-up after the fact. Or, as the U.S. EPA states, pollution prevention is “actively identifying equipment, processes, and activities which generate excessive wastes or use toxic chemicals and then making substitutions, alterations, or product improvements.” P2, or source reduction, “is fundamentally different and, where feasible, more desirable than recycling, treatment or disposal. It is often more cost effective to prevent pollution from being created at its source than to pay for control, treatment and disposal of waste products.  When less pollution is created, there are fewer impacts to human health and the environment.”

P2 practices for manufacturing and industrial sectors might entail using less toxic cleaners, less hazardous ingredients or process inputs, conserving energy and water, and reducing waste through the reuse of materials such as drums or pallets. Manufacturers and supporting industries in Illinois can also contact the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC ) Technical Assistance Program (TAP) to learn more about U.S. EPA-funded P2 assistance available free of charge to members of the aerospace, automotive, chemical, food and beverage, and metal manufacturing and fabrication sectors. See https://uofi.box.com/s/ypoep56408o4kk5pl0qpt2ojpwyo82qh and https://uofi.box.com/s/1crril27e0td9nd3j3njgh49mzoom0q5 for details.

The principles of P2 can be applied to any sector or effort and in homes and schools. It’s all about more efficient use of valuable resources, such as energy and water, using less-toxic materials and products, and avoiding the generation of waste so you don’t have to deal with as many disposal considerations. So, if you practice waste reduction by eliminating disposable products and single-use plastics, if you purchase and use energy-efficient appliances and weatherize your home for the winter, if you look for and fix leaky pipes or faucets, or if you use safer cleaners, you’re practicing P2!

Use the following resources to learn more about P2 and how you can contribute to “preventative medicine” for environmental health and our collective human health which depends upon a healthy environment.

Celebrate Pollution Prevention Week, Sept. 19-25, 2022

The 2022 P2 Week Poster, designed by Rowan Lambert, a senior mural artist at the University of New Orleans.

The third week of September every year is celebrated as Pollution Prevention (P2) Week in the U.S. Thus in 2022, we focus particularly on pollution prevention from September 19th to the 25th, although P2 can and should be a priority year-round.

As defined by the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR, emphasis added), “Pollution is the contamination of air, soil, or water by the discharge of harmful substances. Pollution prevention is the reduction or elimination of pollution at the source (source reduction) instead of at the end-of-the-pipe or stack. Pollution prevention occurs when raw materials, water, energy and other resources are utilized more efficiently, when less harmful substances are substituted for hazardous ones, and when toxic substances are eliminated from the production process. By reducing the use and production of hazardous substances, and by operating more efficiently we protect human health, strengthen our economic well-being, and preserve the environment.”

Rather than being a burden on industry, NPPR points out that “Adopting pollution prevention practices and techniques often benefits industry by lowering a company’s operational and environmental compliance costs. By preventing the generation of waste, P2 can also reduce or eliminate long-term liabilities and clean-up costs. Furthermore, disposal costs are reduced when the volume of waste is decreased. This can also lead to a reduction in workplace exposures to hazardous materials which can affect workers’ health and hence, their productivity. If less waste is produced, there will also be a diminished need for on-site storage space. Furthermore, by preventing pollution there will be a greater likelihood that a company will be in compliance with local, state, and federal compliance statutes. Finally, as community pillars, businesses shoulder an important responsibility for protecting the environment and natural resources for their own good as well as that of society.”

And did you know that in 1990, Congress passed the Pollution Prevention Act (P2Act), which states “The Environmental Protection Agency must establish a source reduction program which collects and disseminates information, provides financial assistance to States, and implements the other activities….”

Helping businesses, organizations, institutions, and government agencies throughout Illinois and beyond to prevent pollution and use resources more efficiently to benefit our shared environment while also ensuring that companies and communities are more competitive and resilient is essentially the mission of the ISTC Technical Assistance Program (TAP). Our team is here to help your organization identify and implement ways to make your operations more sustainable and to prevent pollution. TAP is funded not only by the State of Illinois but also a variety of grants and fee-for-service projects for a variety of clients.

Currently, TAP has funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide free sustainability assessments to Illinois manufacturers in the following sectors:

These assessments can help facilities reduce business costs, energy and water consumption, wastewater generation, emissions, and hazardous material usage, which can result in increased profitability, productivity, and competitiveness as well as recycling or diversion of by-products.

So if you are an Illinois manufacturer with facilities or supporting industries in those sectors, click on the link associated with your sector above to learn more about the assessment opportunity, and how TAP can help you identify P2 opportunities today. You can also access an overview flyer at https://uofi.box.com/s/fu0hsmj6skm52vl290nu7kiuohp758xa or contact Irene Zlevor via email or by phone at 217-300-8617. Additionally, a recorded webinar, presented to Sustain Rockford, describes the assessment process in detail.

There are opportunities for everyone to learn more about and practice P2–not just manufacturers. To learn more, explore the links below.

#P2Week Day 2: Reducing Your Impact Through Repair

This post was written by Joy Scrogum and originally published on the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable (GLRPPR) BlogFor more information on Pollution Prevention (P2) Week, see https://www.epa.gov/p2week

Those of us in the Great Lakes region (and the rest of the US and Canada) live in a so-called “throw-away society” in which consumerism is rampant, and goods are not often designed or produced with durability in mind. In fact, in recent years, more and more goods are designed to be explicitly or implicitly disposable. Even complex products, such as consumer electronics, are treated as if they are meant to be ephemeral. The classic example is the smartphone. These devices are astounding feats of scientific innovation and engineering. For perspective, consider ZME Science’s article from September 2017: Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969. Despite their complexity, and the fact that you, and probably everyone you know, barely scratch the surface in terms of using these devices to their full potential, we are constantly bombarded with cues to upgrade to the latest model. And new models seem to be released ever more frequently, always being touted as somehow greatly more advanced than their predecessors. A simpler example is clothing–when was the last time you sewed up or patched a hole in a shirt or pair of pants? Something that once would have been done by most people as a matter of course might now be deemed peculiar. A modern member of our culture might wonder why one would bother to patch a pair of pants when a new pair could be obtained so cheaply.

Our “take-make-dispose” model can also be called a  linear economy, and the message you receive in such a system is clear: if you have something that becomes damaged or has minor performance issues, you should just replace it. In fact, even if what you have is working well, the time will quickly come when you should just replace the old with the new. Replace, rinse, and repeat. A linear economy is one in which natural resources are extracted and used to create goods which will entirely, or partially, inevitably end up in landfills or incinerators. Some materials may be recovered and recycled, but over time these materials degrade in quality and are used for increasingly lower grade purposes, so that ultimately they will become wasteof little or no further use.

Of course, in order to replace whatever is being disposed of, new goods are required. And those new goods require as much or more resources as the ones that went before them–new minerals and other raw materials must be extracted. Extraction processes can have negative environmental and social impacts (e.g. pollution, habitat destruction, human rights issues related to labor practices, health issues related to exposure to chemicals or physical risks, etc.). Materials are transported to factories (requiring the use of energy in the form of fuel) where they are transformed into new products, again potentially with new human exposures to toxins or other adverse conditions, and potential new emissions of toxins or other substances of concern. In the case of products such as electronics, sometimes components are manufactured in places distant from each other and must be further transported to be brought together in yet another factory to create a complete device. And the finished product is in turn transported across the globe to reach consumers, resulting in more expenditure of energy, more emissions. By the time most products reach the consumer, a great deal of natural and human resources have been invested in them, and however positively the product itself may impact a human life or the broader ecosystem, the number of potential negative impacts all along the supply chain have stacked up. Clearly, any tendency to treat products as disposable, purposefully or incidentally, exacerbates those negative impacts by requiring the manufacture of more products, more quickly than might otherwise have been the case, as long as the demand for product does not diminish.

The tragedy of this linear cycle of use and disposal has lead to the advocacy for a circular economy–one in which extraction of resources is minimized and products and services are designed in such a way as to maximize the flow of materials through resource loops as close to perpetually as physically possible. In such a system, what might have once been considered “waste” continues to be valued in some form or another. A circular economy is built upon design for durability, reuse, and the ability to keep products in service for as long as possible, followed by the ability to effectively reclaim, reuse and recycle materials.

A comparison of linear and circular economies. From the New Zealand Ministry for Environment, https://www.mfe.govt.nz/waste/circular-economy.

So while the industrial designers of tomorrow will hopefully create products that are in line with the more circular worldview, what can you as a consumer do today to foster a circular economy? Of course you can reduce your use of materials, but practically, you will still need to use some products in order to support yourself, your family, and your lifestyle. You can reuse materials for something other than their original purpose, and sell or donate unwanted functional items so that someone else may use them. Similarly you can purchase items that have been previously used by someone else. And recycling of materials after the end of their original purpose allows for at least some extension of their value. But there is another “r,” which in some ways can be seen as a specialized form of reuse, that is becoming more popular–repair. If you own something with minor damage or performance issues, you can choose to repair it rather than replace itAccording to WRAP, a UK organization dedicated to resource efficiency and the circular economy,  “Worth over £200m in gross revenue each year, 23% of the 348,000 tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) collected at household waste and recycling centres could be re-used with minor repairs.” The US company iFixit reports similar statistics, and further states that for every 1000 tons of electronics, landfilling creates less than one job, recycling creates 15 jobs, and repair creates 200 jobs.

There are many barriers to repair, including costs (real or perceived), knowledge, confidence in those performing the repair (one’s self or someone else), and access to tools, instruction manuals and repair code meanings which tell technicians exactly what the problem is so they can address it. Manufacturers of a variety of products, particular those with electronic components (everything from automobiles to cell phones to tractors) have come under pressure in recent years over the attempt to monopolize access to parts, tools, and necessary information for performing repairs, leading to what is called the Right to Repair movement. Currently, 18 US states, including Illinois, Minnesota,  and New York in the Great Lakes region, have introduced “fair repair” bills which would require manufacturers of various products to make those tools, parts, and pieces of information accessible to consumer and third-party repair shops. You can read more about the history of the right to repair movement and right to repair legislation on the Repair Association web site.

In an increasing number of communities around the world, citizens are coming together to share their knowledge, tools, and problem-solving skills to help each other repair every day items for free. I’m writing this on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and here are some examples of local projects that can help you repair the items you own:

  • Illini Gadget Garage. This one’s my favorite, but I’m admittedly biased, since I helped launch this project and coordinated it for the past few years. The IGG is a collaborative repair center for personally-owned electronic devices and small appliances. “Collaborative repair” means that project staff and volunteers don’t repair your device for you; rather they work with you to troubleshoot and repair your device. Assistance is free; consumers are responsible for purchasing their own parts if needed, though staff can help determine what parts might be necessary. In addition to working with consumers by appointment at their campus workshop, the IGG crew conduct “pop-up” repair clinics in various public spaces around the Champaign-Urbana community and across campus. Consumers not only benefit from the “do-it-together” approach, they also get access to specialized tools (e.g. soldering irons, pentalobe screwdrivers, heat guns, etc.) that enable device repair, which many folks wouldn’t have in their tool box at home. Though successful repair obviously can’t be guaranteed, project staff say that if it has a plug or electrical component, and you can carry into the shop (or pop-up), they’ll help you try to figure out and fix the problem.
  • The Bike Project of Urbana-Champaign. Including both a downtown Urbana shop and a Campus Bike Center, this project provides tools and space for bicyclists to share knowledge and repair bicycles. This project sells refurbished bikes, and individuals who are willing to work on fixing up a donated bike (with assistance) can eventually purchase a bike at a discount. See https://thebikeproject.org/get-involved/join-the-bike-project/ for membership fees; an equity membership based on volunteer hours is available.

Wherever you live, you can watch for repair-related courses from local community colleges and park districts, and check to see if your local library operates a tool library, or at least lends some tools (e.g. you can check out a sewing machine and accessories from the Urbana Free Library). Many libraries also provide access to online research tools that can assist with auto and home repairs or more (e.g. see https://champaign.org/library-resources/research-learning).

Interested in starting your own repair-oriented project? Check out these additional examples and resources:

Learn more about the circular economy on the WRAP web site, or the Ellen MacArthur Foundation web site.