Technology, Pollution Prevention

Technology Pollution Prevention 3578
Photo by: Oleg Golovnev

A pollution prevention (P2) technology is one that creates less pollution in its life cycle than the one it replaces. P2 can be achieved in many ways, from better housekeeping and maintenance to redesign of products and processes. The range of P2 technologies is therefore very broad. It includes relatively cleaner technologies, technologies that help other technologies to be cleaner, and certain mass-market technologies. All of them reduce environmental impacts compared to their alternatives. It is important to understand that P2 technology does not include pollution-control or -treatment technologies that do not make the technology producing the pollution any cleaner itself. They just manage the resulting waste.

Relatively Cleaner Technologies

Technology is always advancing and improving. Many new technologies are naturally more energy efficient and less polluting than the ones they replace. Sometimes, this is because they were designed with environmental improvement in mind. Usually, however, it is simply the result of using newer and better materials and components. Therefore, pollution-preventing technologies can be found in every area of a product's life cycle.

Life cycle analysis (LCA) is needed to determine if a particular technology really pollutes less than its alternatives. LCA is the examination of the environmental impacts of a product, from its origins as raw material through processing and production to use and final disposal. This can be a complex process. For example, fluorescent light bulbs may seem to be less polluting than incandescent light bulbs because they use much less energy. However, they actually use polluting chemicals such as mercury that are not found in incandescent light bulbs. So they use less energy, but more toxic chemicals. The choice of indicators for P2 performance and LCA, such as toxicity or energy efficiency, is important for evaluation.

Facilitative Technologies

Some technologies are important for helping other technologies reduce pollution. For example, process controls such as meters and sensors can make many production processes more efficient and less polluting by providing improved control, which reduces waste and defects. Centrifuges can reduce the amount of solids in wastewaters, thereby reducing water pollution. Catalytic converters on engine exhaust systems can reduce air pollution. There are many such examples of technologies that help other technologies be cleaner. This is important in situations where there is a large investment in an existing technology already installed that cannot be easily or economically replaced with new and cleaner technology.

Technologies Designed to Prevent Pollution

Some technologies are designed specifically for protecting the environment while also improving business performance. For example, recycling technologies can help recover valuable materials from wastes, cutting manufacturing costs, while also preventing pollution. Examples include gene-engineered plants that do not need protection using chemical insecticides and fuel cells for generating electricity. However, it is surprisingly challenging to identify such technologies. Most technologies that stop pollution were usually created to simply reduce costs and save on materials. Technologies designed to prevent pollution usually rely on cost efficiency, rather than pollution prevention, as their main selling point.

One important and fundamental exception is P2 in chemical design. Thousands of chemicals are used in industry, commerce, and daily life. Many of them have environmental impacts, from mild to serious. By developing alternative chemicals with better environmental performance, significant reductions in pollution can be obtained throughout product life cycles. A common application of green chemistry is in the design of environmentally benign solvents. Traditional solvents such as acetone, xylene, and methylene chloride are being replaced by new chemicals designed specifically to be less hazardous or less polluting.

Mass-Market P2 Technologies

Mass-market P2 technologies are those that can be used in many different industries or even in consumer households. These technologies create new markets because their production creates jobs and spin-offs, and they generate ready demand from producers who want to reduce input costs. Each has the following criteria:

  1. The technology is widely applicable across a variety of industry types and sizes.
  2. The technology does not require very large capital expenditures.
  3. The technology's usefulness has been proven through years of implementation experience.
  4. The technology has demonstrated free-market feasibility, that is, a positive payback in the productivity of materials, not including reductions in disposal costs.
  5. The technology can be supported in the field by local technicians with basic competence.
  6. Parts for repair are locally available at reasonable cost.

Example mass-market technologies for P2 include household water-conservation fixtures, variable-speed motors, programmable heating and air conditioning controls, citrus-based solvent cleaners, plastic films for reducing heat transmission through windows, and many others.

International P2 Technologies

The major differences in P2 technologies among countries lie in the age of the technology and the level of process control. In less developed countries, much of the technology is old and would be considered out of date and uncompetitive in developed countries. Consequently, it usually produces much more pollution per unit of output. Less developed countries also tend to use fewer process controls and instrumentation. Much of the operation is controlled by hand or based on experience, rather than real-time data. Human error thus potentially creates more waste and pollution in such situations. But there are no hard and fast rules for differences in P2 technologies between countries. In Thailand, for example, there has been significant investment in new factories in the electronics and auto parts industries. These plants use the latest technology and management practices and are much less polluting than older plants in the same industries operating nearby.



European Environment Agency. (1997). Comparing Environmental Impact Data on Cleaner Technologies, Copenhagen: European Environment Agency.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2001). Cleaner Technologies Substitutes Assessment, Washington: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Burt Hamner


Each citizen of the European Union produces an average of 3.5 tonnes (3.85 U.S. tons) of total waste annually. In view of this, on May 27, 2003, the European Union Commission announced a formal communication or policy statement aimed at reducing waste generation and the use of natural resources, and developing a coherent policy on recycling. Current recycling regulations in the EU are inconsistent. For instance, cardboard and paper packaging are recycled but office paper and newsprint are not. Recycling also often costs more than landfilling or incineration. More industry involvement, tradable environmental permits, national landfill bans and taxes, pay-as-you-throw schemes, and producer responsibility initiatives are among the communication's proposals.

User Contributions:

An electric car can treval much further on a smaller amount of fuel, because of vast improvements in energy efficiency. This means much less pollution per mile, even when dirty fuel is burned at the powerplant.*The easiest way to prove this is by looking at fuel cost. After all, you will wind up paying for fuel, no matter how it gets to you, right? First, let's look at gasoline. The typical driver puts about 15,000 miles per year on his car. This works out to 1250 miles per month.*If this driver's car gets 20 miles per gallon, this represents 62.5 gallons of gasoline. Using $ 3.20/gallon (about the price we paid this past summer, and I think it will get back there), our typical driver spends about $ 200 on gasoline every month.*An electric car uses kilowatt-hours (KWH) of electricity instead of gasoline. Typically our EV might get from 3 to 7 miles per KWH. So, for this example, we'll use 4 miles/KWH. In my city, there is a special EV electric rate of just 3 cents/KWH. But in other places, the electric rate could be 10 cents or higher per KWH. So let's use 6 cents.*Using these numbers, the same 1250 miles per month that cost our typical driver $ 200 for gasoline only costs $ 18.75 in electricity for our electric car. The electric fuel only costs about 10% of what gasoline does!*So, using this method, we can approximate that miles driven on electricity are worth 10 times the mileage of miles driven on gasoline, or we could also say it takes one-tenth the amount of fuel for an EV to treval the same distance. (There are other ways to calculate this, but EV mileage is at least 5 times better, and from a money standpoint, as we have seen, up to 10 times better.)*Why is electric power so much cheaper than gasoline? There are two reasons. The first is that electric motors are far more efficient than gasoline engines, so EVs can drive much further on less fuel. The second reason is fuel transportation costs. The electric car fuels by wire (the electric grid is 95% efficient.) By contrast, your gas car requires a vast fuel transportation infrastructure that ships, pipes, trucks, and retails gasoline around the country (creating additional pollution in the process). The price of this infrastructure is built in to the price of gasoline.*This is also the reason electric cars pollute much, much less. No matter what is burned at the powerplant. But the story gets better and better all the time as clean energy sources are added to the electric grid.*SEE REFERENCES BELOW FOR THE NUMBERS I USED.

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Technology, Pollution Prevention forum