5 ways EHS pros can solve pollution challenges

To go green and save money, you need to ask one simple question: What is causing the pollution?

Simple as the question seems, many people who are responsible for managing waste, maintaining air emission control equipment, managing records, or even paying an electric bill have little or no idea how they generate pollution. Further, most employees cannot fully explain how their job activities impact the environment. Knowing exactly how a pollutant is generated gives you an important clue about how to improve the efficiency of your operation. It allows you to open a dialogue with those in "core" business areas, which leads to lower pollution and higher profits.

This summer, we at the Zero Waste Network spoke with more than 40 environmental health and safety (EHS) professionals who attended our lean and environmental workshops. The most common change reported was that the EHS manager took the time to thoroughly understand the process and educate the people who ran the process about the implications of pollution on their job.

It's a pattern my colleagues and I often see when providing pollution prevention assistance and training. The lone environmental manager is responsible for the end of the pipe, while most of the plant is doing "important" work. If you are the plant EHS officer, you probably know how it feels to be on the sidelines. People may view you as "the price of doing business," not as a primary part of core business operation. Making the connection between reducing waste and improving the bottom line can change this perception for fellow employees and your boss.

The successes we see are rarely discussed because they involve subtle changes in corporate culture. For instance, once I was on a team that interviewed the line manager for a wafer manufacturing operation. He was very guarded in his responses regarding an acid scrubber and environmental issues in general. He repeatedly stated he would not interfere with EHS, which was "doing a fine job" maintaining the acid scrubber. This production manager was one of the most important and respected people in the company and made it clear his time was precious. As in many companies, his job was to keep the product flowing on the line and he counted on others to manage the end-of-pipe pollutant.

He explained the extraordinary measures they used to keep the line moving. Shutting the line down could mean days of lost revenue, while expenses rose. He was aware that the scrubber was a regulatory requirement, but we didn't discuss regulations. Instead, we mentally connected the scrubber to the line. The acid emissions were the result of acid use, which was critically important to keeping production flowing. Venting the fumes was part of the process. When we connected the scrubber to production, he leaned forward, his eyes sharpening, his attention riveted on a single thought: "If the scrubber doesn't function, my line could go down!" Because of that connection, the EHS manager made a powerful ally in his efforts to ensure the scrubber was operated efficiently.

As the EHS manager, you are expected to keep your company in compliance. However, if you simply ensure pollution control equipment is functioning properly, or waste is disposed of, you will be relegated forever to the end of the pipe. Pollution prevention relies on understanding the full process, including which activities, materials or services have a potential impact on the environment. Once you and your colleagues make the connection between activities and pollution, you can begin to generate solutions. How one makes the connection varies from plant to plant and depends strongly on what the core business function is. But here are a few rules.

1. Know what's important. Step back from managing the drum and look around at the organization you are in. If you are on a military base, you may hear the term "readiness." So instead of saying, "We want to reduce our RCRA waste," say, "We can install trickle chargers on our vehicles to improve battery life, so vehicles will be ready." 

2. Find the relief valve. As the economy rebounds and hiring stays stagnant, many businesses we work with have more work and fewer people. Instead of saying, "We need to shut down the plant and identify our waste streams," say, "If we make a change to our process flow, we can decrease rework and lower the company's liability." An excellent example of this is Lasco Bathware's use of lean manufacturing (PDF) to reduce its environmental impact. 

3. Draw a process map (and don't do it alone). Break your plant's activities into discrete pieces and define all of the inputs and outputs from each process. You may have the data to do this in your office, but working with a team of people helps them make the connection, so don't do this step alone.

4. Don't try to sell management on polar bears. One common mistake is framing the environmental discussion in terms of the natural world. Our day-to-day lives may have an impact on the North Pole, but we don't see that. Furthermore, discussing the whole world may win short-term results, but in the end we have seen short-term economics win out in the boardroom. Make a case for change without saying, "This is the right thing to do." Instead say, "This makes business sense," and explain how the pollution affects the bottom line. Then, after you have made the business case, remind them of the regulations and conclude with "… and we can show our community we care."

5. Know your worth — and make sure they do, too. Once you've made the connection and a pollution prevention project moves forward, it often results in dramatic changes in a company. But did anyone document the changes? Did you make the connection between your efforts and improved production? What were the full savings achieved as a result of the project? The Zero Waste Network case study database is one tool for documenting your successes.

Making the connection between pollution and activities is the first and most important step in finding ways to prevent pollution, rather than just managing it. It can eliminate the idea that you are an overhead cost. More than that, it is a way for you to demonstrate the value of your environmental program and to get support from all employees to run a profitable and environmentally efficient company.

Pipeline photo by Eugene Sergeev via Shutterstock