What is Pollution Prevention?

What is Pollution Prevention?


Pollution Prevention (P2) is just one of many elements of sustainable development.  The Brundtland Commission, formally known as the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) defined sustainability as “humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”(World Commission On Environment and Development, 1987, p. 8).  Figure 1 shows this concept in a graphical form.http://www.vanderbilt.edu/sustainvu/cms/files/sustainability_spheres.png

Figure 1-The Three Spheres of Sustainability

(UV, 2014)


In this discussion, we will be examining the environmental sphere and how it affects the environmental sphere.

Defining source reduction and pollution prevention

The notion of Pollution Prevention in the United States was created by the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 (Habicht, 1992). On the surface, the concept is simple enough, prevent pollution from entering into the environment.  First glances could be deceiving, especially considering how this concept is defined. 

In order to define pollution prevention, one must understand how source reduction is defined.  Habicht (1992) states the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 defines pollution prevention as source reduction which is defined by the act as follows:

●”increased efficiency in the use of raw materials, energy, water, or other resources, or protection of natural resources by conservation” (p. 3);

●”reduces the amount of any hazardous substance, pollutant, or contamination entering any waste stream or otherwise released into the environment (including fugitive emissions) prior to recycling, treatment or disposal” (p. 3);

●”reduces the hazards to public health and the environment associated with the release of such substances, pollutants, or contaminants” (p. 3).

As one can plainly see, the concepts of source reduction and pollution prevention can be defined within sustainability.

US EPA and the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 states the following goals for pollution prevention:

●pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source whenever feasible (Habicht, 1992);

●pollution that cannot be prevented should be recycled in an environmentally safe manner whenever feasible (Habicht, 1992);

●pollution that cannot be prevented or recycled should be treated in an environmentally safe manner whenever feasible (Habicht, 1992); and

●disposal or other release into the environment should be employed only as a last resort and should be conducted in an environmentally safe manner (Habicht, 1992).


Polluntion Prevention Hierarchy

Figure 2-Pollution Prevention Hierarchy (US Army IMCOM Installation Management Command-European Region:  Directorate of Public Works, n.d.)



Problems associated with pollution prevention

Who defines what is a pollutant or contaminant?

Simple questions require a simple answer.  US EPA and other federal level agencies, state-level environmental agencies, county and local level governments, and environmental non-governmental organization (ENGO).  Using the example of coal tar based pavement sealer (CTS), advocate scientists performed a risk assessment that this product increased the risk of cancer, especially to children (Williams, Mahler, & Van Metre, 2012). Industry’s response was that the USGS risk assessment was grossly overstated especially considering that coal tar topical solutions have been cleared by USFDA as safe and that the author’s claims were based upon assumptions that were statistically insignificant (Magee & Keating-Connolly, 2013).  The question must be asked why USGS was performing risk assessments, which they are not chartered to perform.  Another question is why two USGS hydrologist were involved with a risk assessment, neither scientists is remotely qualified to perform.

Pollution Prevention is vaguely defined

Another major issue associated with Pollution Prevention is that it is vaguely defined. The theoretical framework and definitions are all loosely defined.  There are several reasons why this is done.  First, any activity that is vaguely defined eludes oversight. It is much like telling a business person to “make money” but not giving them direction if they mean make a profit or make a sale.  Another reason for vague definitions is that it allows agencies using P2 programs a wide path for decision-making in terms of products to demarket and deselect from the market place.  These decisions are made under the guise of being environmentally unsustainable.  This is eluded to by Habicht (1992) acknowledges this fact when he wrote “While the concept of pollution prevention is broadly applicable–a tool to accomplish many environmental tasks…”.  Another example is given with Browner (1993) when she states “At the same time, we must acknowledge that the fundamental nature of our base programs must evolve to create a more hospitable environment for the transition from “end of pipe” treatment to pollution prevention”.

 Pollution Prevention is not based on objective science

Another problem with this concept is that it is value-based, meaning that decision-making utilizing science will be bias toward public policy preferences.  This can be illustrated in Browner (1993) where pollution prevention is referred to as “the new environmental ethic” (p. 1).   Another example is shown in Habicht (1992) states that “EPA is seeking to integrate pollution prevention as an ethic throughout its activities…:”  Finally, pollution prevention requires a “culture change”(Habicht, 1992).  In the case of coal tar based pavement sealer, this is illustrated in several ways.  First, the scientific stance that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is that the “science is settled” and not open to discussion.  This stance is telling since there is a body of work that refutes the advocate’s claims and Minnesota passed it ban based on the precautionary principle (as per email amongst MPCA personnel).  Another example of this value-based decision-making is that MPCA actively solicits schools and school districts (targeting children) about their findings about the dangers of coal tar based sealer. This is an illustration of the demarketing and deselection process in order to ban this product. 

Economic benefits?  Really?

EPA has made various claims regarding to benefits derived from pollution prevention by “regulation is less than effective as reducing pollution, pollution may shift from one source to another, economic benefits such as reduction or elimination (or minimization) of waste management or cleanup costs, more efficient manufacturing, strengthening economic competitiveness and sustainability of raw material use” (Browner, 1993).  These claims would be really nice if they were true.  The literature show that there are many factors that dictates if cost are reduced, wastes reduced or strengthens economic competitiveness.  In addition, prior studies show that there is no consensus with regard to these savings or benefits associated with pollution control activities (Ambec, Cohen, Elgie, & Lanoie, 2013; Lanoie, Laurent-Lucchetti, Johnstone, & Ambec, 2011).

EPA grants in exchange for favorable state legislation?

In the case of Minnesota and their ban of coal tar based pavement sealer, Minnesota started their product ban program by providing grants to cities that ban the product(Legislature of the State of Minnesota, 2009).  This is truly an example of a product with a price on its head.  Browner (1993) states that P2 programs “will require flexibility in grants to states, and improved working relationships with other federal agencies that have a profound influence on the environment through their own behavior or policies”.  MPCA provides an example of this relationship by its choosing to “phase-out” or ban the product via demarket and deselect processes, paid for by EPA grants (U.S. EPA-Greal Lakes Retoration Initative 2012; U.S. EPA-Pollution Prevention, 2013).


Ambec, S., Cohen, M. A., Elgie, S., & Lanoie, P. (2013). The Porter Hypothesis at 20: Can Environmental Regulation Enhance Innovation and Competitiveness? Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 7(1), 2-22. doi: 10.1093/reep/res016

Browner, C. M. (1993). Pollution Prevention Policy Statement:  New directions for environmental protection. from http://infohouse.p2ric.org/ref/34/33485.pdf

Habicht, F. H. (1992). EPA Definition of Pollution Prevention. from http://www.epa.gov/p2/pubs/docs/pollprev.pdf

Lanoie, P., Laurent-Lucchetti, J., Johnstone, N., & Ambec, S. (2011). Environmental Policy, Innovation and Performance: New Insights on the Porter Hypothesis. Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, 20(3), 803-842. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-9134.2011.00301.x

Legislature of the State of Minnesota. (2009). Chapter 172-HF 1231 Article 2 Clean Water Fund.

Magee, B., & Keating-Connolly, J. (2013). Comment on “Cancer Risk from Incidental Ingestion Exposures to PAHs Associated with Coal-Tar-Sealed Pavement”. Environmental Science & Technology, 48(1), 868-869. doi: 10.1021/es404184q

U.S. EPA-Greal Lakes Retoration Initative (2012). 2011 grants. from http://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/glri/2011grants.html

U.S. EPA-Pollution Prevention. (2013). Fiscal year 2012 pollution prevention grant summaries. from http://www.epa.gov/p2/pubs/grants/ppis/p2sum2012.html

US Army IMCOM Installation Management Command-European Region:  Directorate of Public Works. (n.d.). Pollution Prevention-Legal Requirements. from http://www.grafenwoehr.army.mil/usag_dpw/environmental/p2/env_p2_legal.asp

UV, V. U. S. (2014). The Three Spheres of Sustainability. from http://www.vanderbilt.edu/sustainvu/cms/files/sustainability_spheres.png

Williams, E. S., Mahler, B. J., & Van Metre, P. C. (2012). Cancer Risk from Incidental Ingestion Exposures to PAHs Associated with Coal-Tar-Sealed Pavement. Environmental Science & Technology, 47(2), 1101-1109. doi: 10.1021/es303371t

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