Why the road to sustainability starts with pollution prevention

P2 Pathways

Why the road to sustainability starts with pollution prevention

Pollution prevention as a term has become less used recently, supplanted by sustainability, but the fundamental idea of preventing pollution rather than fixing problems is essential for efficient, economically viable manufacturing, providing services, and addressing many environmental problems.

It makes sense, both economically and environmentally, to reduce the input of materials and energy, minimize the amount of waste for treatment and disposal, and make sure the wastes that are produced can be reused or disposed of easily and without harm to the environment.

In fact, in that way pollution prevention is an essential component of sustainability. Costs for extra raw materials, waste disposal, and waste treatment systems can be eliminated or substantially reduced. For example, Washington State businesses have said that pollution prevention planning has saved more than $45 million since 2005 (PDF)­­­.

Many new tools in the arsenal of programs and processes to prevent pollution at its source are becoming readily available, such as the push toward lean manufacturing that is focused on eliminating waste (anything that does not add value for the customer), and lifecycle approaches that can help prioritize challenges. In addition, there are many new P2 opportunities created by new energy conservation tools, new materials, and the move towards green chemistry. What is important is that pollution prevention thinking be integrated into everything we do.

Experience has taught us that pollution prevention should not be an add-on, but should be integrated into the business processes and ownership for solutions integrated into the responsibilities of the people who create the waste. As such, it is important to understand the business model to know where the opportunities have the greatest impact and can leverage limited resources.

For example, in a fairly stable operation there may be opportunities in training for better procedures -- training for better spray painting procedures at Woodfold Manufacturing, Inc., in Forest Grove, Ore., reduced paint use by 1,082 gallons, reduced VOC emissions by over 1,000 pounds, and saved $38,330 in the first year alone.

Where decisions are being made that impact environmental performance in the supply chain, such as by manufacturing equipment suppliers or chemical suppliers, it may be most effective to drive efficiencies there. We should always be opportunistic to implement good ideas, but since we all have limited resources it is important to focus our main programs on the areas where highest impact decisions are being made.

At Intel, manufacturing is driven by Moore’s Law, which is that the number of transistors in a chip doubles every two years. To keep up with Moore’s Law, a new manufacturing process is developed every two years with smaller feature sizes, lower energy consumption, and greater computing capability.

Making a semiconductor has hundreds of individual steps, each step may be researched separately and then the different steps are integrated into a manufacturing process in the final two years before high volume manufacturing begins. The processes are so complicated and interactions between steps so sophisticated that once the technology has been developed it is copied exactly in high volume manufacturing. 

Long research and development cycles produce semiconductor manufacturing processes that have a relatively short life, so R&D has to be engaged in pollution prevention. Of the thousands of research ideas that are investigated, relatively few make it into actual manufacturing technology. Focusing too early in research results in lots of time being wasted on ideas that will not make it into a production process; on the other hand, once a process goes to high volume manufacturing, it is too late to change. At Intel, we have found the sweet spot is getting deeply engaged one to three years before high volume manufacturing begins.

Intel’s environmental professionals define the priorities and environmental performance targets and then the engineers who develop the manufacturing process are responsible for achieving the performance. The same development engineers responsible for pushing the bounds of physics are also responsible for pollution prevention. This approach helps promote the most effective integrated solutions.

For example, without incentive, development engineers may be resistant to optimize a material to produce less waste, or change materials to ones that are less toxic; however, if the alternative is that they will have to develop a complicated waste treatment system they may be actively looking for these alternative approaches. Engagement at this stage has been used to reduce the use of perfluorinated compounds as shown in the chart below.  These materials are essential in semiconductor manufacturing but have very high global warming potentials.

There is a huge need to be able to get good information into the hands of the people who can use it. The Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange is made up of eight pollution prevention centers around the country that collaborate on delivering information services and technical assistance to businesses to help them operate more efficiently, contributing to a healthier environment and a stronger bottom line. Intel works closely with the center headquartered in Seattle and operating in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska -- the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center.

PPRC provides affordable technical assistance, particularly to small and medium-sized businesses throughout the region. As an example, since 2007, PPRC has provided outreach technical assistance to automotive and landscape businesses in Washington County, Ore., through the EcoBiz certification program. Among 24 firms interviewed, changes in business practices as a result of the certification yielded outcomes such as: 16.5 million gallons of water use reduced; 291,000 gallons of waste water to storm drains avoided; 81,000 pounds of landfill waste eliminated; and hazardous waste reductions including 70 grams of mercury; 1,483 pounds of zinc; and 253 pounds of lead. Additionally, the program helped businesses reduce air emissions, lower energy use, and improve worker safety. Firms also reported lower costs and additional sales.

Tremendous strides have been made in preventing pollution, but with the new business tools, new materials, and new approaches there will continue to be important new opportunities to reduce waste, use fewer resources, and find more efficient and less toxic solutions. Pollution prevention is an important element of becoming more sustainable.

Photo of woman standing in polluted cityscape via Shutterstock.com.