How P2 can change the state of green manufacturing

When it comes to reducing the environmental impacts of a business, the concept of pollution prevention is one of the most fundamentally important ideas in the sustainability guidebook.

The basic concept is simple: Pollution prevention (P2) aims to reduce or eliminate waste at the source by changing production processes, using non-toxic or less-toxic substances, implementing conservation techniques, and reusing materials instead of putting them in the waste stream.

P2 is a methodology that is critical to a company's operations, and should be embedded in their strategic plan to streamline their manufacturing waste outputs and save costs and regulatory hassles at the same time.

So why isn't P2 more widely adopted?

Although P2 is well known and has been used for years in some manufacturing sectors, there are still companies that describe their P2 efforts as implementing only recycling practices (cardboard, paper, etc.) or reducing energy usage.

Perhaps even more of a challenge is when P2 is associated with or used interchangeably with "pollution controls." These "end of pipe" technologies are not considered to be P2 practices, because the use of pollution control technologies are more often than not driven by external factors like environmental regulations and compliance.

For example, there are potential fines and negative press for a company that exceeds its air permitting limits. In order to avoid these outcomes, companies implement a variety of process controls after the waste is already in existence so that their releases are below legal limits. In contrast, P2 practices focus reduction efforts on the source of the waste stream.

Creating a P2 Cultural Shift

Pollution prevention projects generally are promoted internally and typically are not driven by regulations. They often have a strong business case when considering the amount of resources companies spend on treatment or disposal of their waste streams. Another major advantage of P2 practices is the possibility of reducing or eliminating regulatory permitting and burdens facing companies using toxic chemicals and creating hazardous waste streams.

But embracing the P2 methodology requires a cultural shift in the questions that companies ask about their waste streams. For example, if a company has a high disposal cost associated with a large solid waste stream, the first exercise that non-P2 companies often undertake is a review of all solid waste disposal options, vendors and costs to determine a cheaper method of handling the waste stream. This is handling the stream at the end of pipe, after waste has been generated and disposal is required.

When incorporating P2, the first exercise should be evaluating all of the sources of this solid waste stream. Have they been quantified? Is there a way to reduce them further upstream in the process so there is less overall waste at the end for disposal? Have opportunities to use this "waste" in other applications been explored?

This change in culture and approach to handling overall manufacturing process waste is often a challenge and at times requires a technical expert to collect appropriate data, help define alternate processes and develop the business case. The availability of P2 technical experts is one of the biggest challenges facing small- to medium-sized businesses looking to implement P2 practices and methodologies.

The organization that I direct, the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), has been created to provide research, technology development, outreach, training and education to help New York businesses become more sustainable for workers, the public, the environment and the economy. We've developed a number of innovative, cost-effective green engineering solutions that make manufacturing processes more efficient, while reducing environmental impact and manufacturing costs, making use of tools like Lean, Energy & Environment (LE2) and Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) to assist manufacturing companies in their efforts to improve their environmental performance.

A key component of P2 as applied to manufacturing processes is to completely understand the inputs and outputs of the system. Many companies analyze their energy and water usage by viewing their electric and water bills for the facility. However, within a facility that entails multiple manufacturing processes, it's critical to understand the resources needed to run each process and the waste associated with each process. LE2 is a tool that creates a detailed material and energy balance on a manufacturing process or product. Thoroughly understanding the baseline metrics of each process allows the company to focus on specific media (air, water, hazardous waste, energy, etc.) where improvements can result in major impacts.

Next page: How P2 can save you money