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For many years, efforts to control industrial pollution have focused on "end-of-the-pipe" cleanup -- scrubbing, burning or otherwise abating pollution just before it leaves the plant. As imperfect an approach as that is, industry would have it no other way, preferring that environmental regulations stay as far away from their internal production processes as possible.

But, there is another way. Rather than creating pollution and then trying to clean it or contain it, industrial polluters could instead develop cleaner production methods and use less toxic chemicals in the first place. Industry maintains that such pollution prevention efforts would cost great sums of money and accomplish little. But is that true? Has industry really picked all of the "low-hanging fruit," or are there meaningful pollution prevention measures yet remaining that won't also break the bank?

That question was at the heart of the Michigan Source Reduction Initiative, a two-year project bringing NRDC and a group of local environmental activists into a joint project with an unlikely partner: Dow Chemical. The project focused on Dow's Midland, Michigan plant, where a range of products, including Saran Wrap, Dursban (an insecticide), 2,4-D (an herbicide), and a host of other pesticides and industrial chemicals are produced. The project's results were truly remarkable: a 43 percent cut in polluting emissions. Just as impressive, the project will end up saving Dow some $5.3 million per year, balanced against one-time expenses of $3.2 million. Saving money for Dow wasn't a goal of the project, of course, but it's an important accomplishment because it proves that pollution prevention can be supremely cost effective.

Searching out solutions

Those results were the product of a process that demanded equal parts patience, persistence, and chemical engineering expertise. The project's specific goal was to develop a portable method for identifying environmentally sound, or at least improved, manufacturing methods. In other words, while the specific manufacturing improvements created for Midland might not be applicable elsewhere, the hope was that the collaborative method of identifying and implementing those efficiencies would be broadly replicable.

The two-year process involved a searching and detailed examination of 13 separate product lines at the plant. Like other chemical manufacturing plants, Dow's Midland facility creates chemical products by mixing a variety of raw materials under precise engineering conditions. Various wastes and emissions are generated along the way -- unwanted byproducts of the production process, solvents used to dissolve the ingredients, and more.

NRDC project leader Linda Greer, joined by local activists, and additional chemical engineering consultants, explored production processes in minute detail, tracking down the source of every polluting emission, identifying where in a given chemical reaction it was created, and, eventually, proposing new production methods that would be friendlier to the environment. Those methods included finding less harmful solvents, identifying opportunities to reuse or recycle waste and more. While Dow was under no obligation to adopt any of the opportunities identified, both plant and corporate management committed to join earnestly in the process and to honestly consider all proposals. Moreover, the participation in the project of local environmental activists helped stiffen the company's resolve to live up to the commitment.

One change NRDC and the local environmentalists proposed was remarkably simple: Dow should carry out a particular chemical reaction at a lower temperature. As anyone who has ever watched sugar dissolve in a cup of hot tea can attest, some chemical reactions behave differently at different temperatures. In this case, Dow was persuaded to purchase low-cost refrigeration equipment for the area of the plant where the specific reaction was created.

Other improvements involved using cleaner solvents and reactants, or simply re-using the ones already in service. In one instance, Dow was disposing of a solvent after its initial use, on the assumption that it had degraded too much to be reused. The consulting team reexamined that assumption and demonstrated that the solvent could actually be used several times over. As a result, Dow had less new solvent to purchase, and less used solvent to clean up.

Lessons Learned

Despite the success of the project, NRDC and the local environmental activists believe it will be difficult for Dow to commit to applying the lessons from Midland at its other plants. Not surprisingly, the reason is financial. Even though the project saved the company money, the dollar figures were low by Dow standards, so the company may well make more money by investing resources elsewhere. Which suggests a hard but important lesson for environmentalists: in order for industry to implement pollution prevention, it must not only be profitable for the company to do so, it must be more profitable than other potential investments available to the company.

Another important lesson from the project has to do with the need for institutional change within Dow, and presumably other such corporations. Dow's decision to work with NRDC and the activists in this project was courageous, and the company deserves credit. But it's clear that for such efforts to get off the ground, a variety of institutional barriers will need to be overcome. For example, the company must create meaningful rewards for mid-level managers who identify and implement environment-friendly policies, and it must learn to place greater institutional value on environmental savings when making investment decisions.

In the meantime, focused pressure from environmental activists is critical, and the Midland experience demonstrates that clearly. Without NRDC's leadership, the Midland project would never have begun. Similarly, Greer's technical and advocacy expertise, applied to the task of identifying pollution prevention opportunities, was critical throughout the course of the project. Finally, local environmental activists, with their deep history of involvement with Dow at Midland, played the unique role of holding Dow's local managers' feet to the fire.

But the most important lesson from the project is the answer to the basic question at its core: can cost-effective pollution prevention be implemented in an industrial setting? The Michigan Source Reduction Initiative demonstrates conclusively that it can. Despite industry's assertions that they've already achieved all the cost-effective pollution savings that are available, much more can still be done. Indeed, it must.

Based on PREVENTING INDUSTRIAL POLLUTION AT ITS SOURCE: A Final Report of the Michigan Source Reduction Initiative, a July 1999 report from NRDC, Dow, and five Midland, Michigan, community activists.

last revised 7/17/1999

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