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
Part of the LE2 process is performing a feasibility study, as applicable, for the potential improvement proposed. Many small and medium-sized companies are risk-averse and the idea of running a feasibility study to quantify all benefits & solidify the technology prior to implementation or scale-up is a daunting task. But taking advantage of the expertise and testing facilities at the four universities partnering with NYSP2I (Clarkson University, University at Buffalo, Rochester Institute of Technology (where NYSP2I is housed) & Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) gives companies access to a wealth of knowledge and state-of-the-art laboratories for testing and feasibility analysis.
P2 -- Done Right -- Saves Money
One of the arguments that are often brought up against P2 is that going green will cost companies more green. Through first-hand experience, NYSP2I has worked with many New York State companies to incorporate best practices into their manufacturing processes that significantly reduced their costs and environmental footprint. In most cases, NYSP2I participated as an external resource to assist them in this task, acting primarily as a catalyst for the company by showing them areas of opportunity that they can continue to leverage and improve.
For example, a turbine blade manufacturer requested that NYSP2I assist the company in reducing the amount of hazardous acid waste generated by their manufacturing process. In 2007, the company generated 502 tons of acid waste from its titanium etching operations and spent over $400,000 on acid disposal, purchase of new acid, and generator fees. These expenses were expected to rise as acid prices and hazardous waste disposal costs increased.
Through the LE2 tool, NYSP2I performed a detailed literature review on the etch bath chemistry, followed by a feasibility study to change the acid boost method in the etch baths to extend the acid bath life.
The test protocol we developed and implemented in a selected etch tank on site led to an immediate reduction of hazardous waste by 47 percent. At full implementation of process improvements, an 86 percent reduction in hazardous waste is expected and 70 percent reduction in operating costs.
Approximately one-third of the overall savings resulted from a reduction in the generator fees. Process changes cost $15,000 (for new measurement equipment) and the ROI was one month; so in a short time, the process improvements were paid for and the economic benefit turned into profit for the company, all while significantly reducing their environmental footprint.
Another example of savings through pollution prevention is a company that fabricates and remanufactures spare parts for virtually all classes of military vehicles. The vehicle parts the company remanufacturers are very dirty, so it is critically important that efficient surface cleaning operations are used to clean the parts.
The company was experiencing difficulty cleaning parts both consistently and cost-effectively. In addition, the surface cleaning operations presented a significant bottleneck, dramatically slowing the company's expansion plans. NYSP2I was brought in to identify the specific sources of production bottlenecks and improve effectiveness and consistency of surface cleaning operations.
Again using the LE2 tool, we performed a detailed analysis on the remanufacturing process, collecting data on parts, cleaning processes and production capacity to identify cleaning requirements. We identified alternative surface cleaning technologies and performed a feasibility analysis by testing actual parts from the company through various surface-cleaning technologies in NYSP2I's Surface Cleaning Technology testbed at RIT.
The feasibility test showed us which technologies were both technically and economically feasible, while at the same time making manufacturing processes more efficient.
By implementing the improvements proposed by NYSP2I, the company was able to make rapid and significant annual savings, including more than:
At times the biggest hindrance to implementation of P2 solutions is the requirement of major capital expenses in order to complete an improvement, such as when replacing large pieces of equipment. New York State has created many incentives that can offset the cost of capital and assist in meeting the appropriate company payback period, and other states and regions have done the same.
The bottom line is, P2 should be considered a critical component for companies looking to reduce waste costs while improving environment performance. Reducing waste at the source will lead to reductions in environmental footprint, which then has the potential of reducing negative impact on workers, communities and society. Technical resources such as NYSP2I can provide major support to the industrial community at any point during their path towards a more sustainable future, and we encourage you to get in touch so we can help you reach that future.
Manufacturing photo via Shutterstock. Inline images courtesy of the author.