What makes pollution prevention difficult in practice?

Case Study: Corporate Obstacles to Pollution Prevention

Peter Cebon


If pollution prevention is such a great thing, why doesn’t it just happen?  Plenty of case studies show it is a “win-win-win” alternative, benefiting the corporation, the community, and the countryside.  Yet it took 10 years for government to take such an obvious idea seriously, and another five to create a semblance if regulatory interest.  On the corporate side, very little happened before publication of the first Toxic Release Inventory in 1989 put public pressure on companies.  Not all companies found pollution prevention cheap or easy.


Pollution prevention is a complex subject ranging from small changes in operating technique to massive, research-driven endeavors to create new products and processes.  To keep things manageable, let’s focus here on one type of pollution prevention: incremental changes in existing technology.  In this context, incremental changes means the substitution of one or two steps in a production process; it may also mean changes in relationships between production steps.  Examples might include changes in a washing step, or redesigning the process to eliminate the need for washing altogether.  Eliminating chlorofluorocarbons and saving energy by replacing a refrigeration process with a heat exchanger that can exploit waste cooling from another part of the process would likewise be incremental change.


For these incremental changes, three decision-making stages are critical: identifying a pollution prevention opportunity, finding a solution appropriate to that opportunity, and implementing that solution.  It will be useful to examine how three important aspects of an organization-its culture, its ability to process information, and its politics-can affect these three stages.  The discussion should demonstrate the importance of thinking of pollution prevention as a social, rather than simply a technical, activity.


What makes pollution prevention difficult in practice?  The question can best be answered by first considering a second question, How is pollution prevention different from end-of-pipe emissions control?  A key difference between the two is that pollution prevention opportunities are embedded deep within the plant and are tied to very specific physical locations.  To determine whether a particular solution is feasible, people need a really intimate understanding of the way the plant works.  This kind of understanding doesn’t come for design drawings but from the uses and working idiosyncrasies of the individual pieces of equipment.


Emissions control devices, on the other hand, are physically quite separate from the rest of the production process.  All that’s necessary to understand them is the composition of the material coming out the pipe.  Because that tends to be the same from one plant to another, the solutions can be relatively independent of the process.  One example: Despite different makes and ages of conventional boilers, different control systems, different histories, and different operating strategies, a scrubber is always a viable emissions control strategy for high-sulfur, coal-fired power stations.