Finding the Better Way

More businesses are taking a proactive approach to prevention and compliance

I've been an environmental consultant for almost 20 years, and I've owned my own company for 10. Over the years, "Environmental Compliance Audits" have been one of the hardest products to sell to industrial customers. For many industries, compliance with local, state, and federal environmental rules is a necessary evil, generally addressed with the least amount of effort possible. For some, enforcement, and the resulting penalties by regulatory agencies, has presented a cheaper solution than prevention and compliance. But for leading businesses, compliance has been surpassed by pollution prevention (P2), resource conservation (sustainability), and environmental leadership.

As costs for raw materials and waste disposal continue to escalate, more and more businesses are seeking to streamline their operations. One of the key areas of this evaluation process is improved environmental management and implementation of efficient and less wasteful operations. For the consultant, the projected cost savings is an easier product to sell to management, and for the industries' environmental leadership, it's something to be proud of.

Industrial facilities in the United States are required to follow a wide range of local, state, and/or federal environmental regulations. Being "in compliance" can have a broad definition ranging from full compliance with applicable rules and regulations to being satisfied with enough compliance to avoid regulatory enforcement. Compliance should be correctly defined as obtaining the minimum regulatory standards applicable to that specific facility. Going beyond compliance and finding the better way (P2, sustainability, and leadership) is the desired direction that provides the benefits of a pro-active rather than reactive management system, good relationships with regulators, lower operating costs, increased profits, improved employee morale, and growing customer loyalty for green products and businesses. This last benefit is becoming increasingly important in global economics as witnessed by ISO regulations such as ISO14000.

Pollution Prevention
The EPA defines P2 as the "Use of materials, processes, or practices that reduce the use of hazardous materials, energy, water, or other resources and practices that protect natural resources through conservation or more efficient use." EPA's Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 established a national policy that pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source. P2 offers important economic benefits to businesses, especially those that generate large volumes of hazardous wastes. EPA encourages and provides assistance to facilities to practice P2, but it does not mandate by law implementation of P2 strategies. It should be noted that, under the Pollution Prevention Act, recycling, energy recovery, treatment, and disposal are not considered P2.

The regulatory requirements of P2 vary from state to state. In some states, the implementation of P2 procedures is encouraged, and the state provides various levels of assistance, while in other states (Texas, for example), developing a P2 plan (PPP) is a legal requirement for selected industries. Although a PPP is not required in Arizona, the state provides economic incentives to facilities that develop a PPP by reducing hazardous waste fees. In states that require P2 planning, facilities generating hazardous wastes or reporting Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) releases (Form R) are required to complete a PPP (sometimes referred to as waste minimization/source reduction WM/SR plan). The focus of P2 from the EPA, along with many states, is source reduction. Source reduction can be achieved by good operating practices (e. g., segregate waste streams based on toxicity), inventory control, spill and leak prevention, raw material modification, cleaning and degreasing (mechanical cleaning rather than solvents), surface preparation and finishing (e. g., powder coating), and product modifications.

Our professional experience with PPPs is that they are an excellent tool in identifying, evaluating, prioritizing, and implementing P2 strategies. In most cases, even facilities with a well-trained environmental staff, a combination of "brain storming" and an on-site inspection are beneficial in identifying one or more P2 strategies. It is surprising how much "low-lying fruit" can be identified at most plants. The most common items we observe are: poor segregation of waste streams, such as plant trash mixed with hazardous waste; waste improperly classified as hazardous that is actually non-hazardous waste; absence of product substitution (e. g., use of non-hazardous inks and cleaning solvents, which are now commonly available for most applications); end-of-pipe evaluation of waste streams versus in-process (when appropriate with EPA); and unnecessary waste generation from spills or leaks. In some cases, the facility can reduce or eliminate the volume and number of hazardous waste streams, thereby reducing their RCRA generator status from large quantity generator to small or conditionally exempt. This means lower costs for handling and disposal of wastes and reduced labor to manage the waste streams. In almost every situation, implementing P2 can save money and time. The question for facilities is not whether P2 saves money, but rather, which P2 strategies to implement first based on return on investment.

Sustainability is defined by EPA as, "the ability to achieve economic prosperity while protecting the natural resources of the planet and providing a higher quality of life for its people." Simply put, sustainability involves the the reduction of pollutants and the conservation of natural resources such as electricity, fuel, and water. Sustainability can be implemented using a number of different programs, such as green chemistry, stormwater best management practices, Brownfield cleanup and remediation, EPA's Energy Star program (efficient appliances), Environmental Management Systems (EMS), and green building design. For many industries, P2 is the initial focus because of cost savings and regulatory pressure. However, additional cost savings can be realized by implementing sustainability strategies. Examples of specific cost-saving activities include: use of energy efficient lighting; removal of sun roofs or replacement with reflected light; improved building insulation; use of energy efficient appliances (Energy Star models) and equipment (e. g., pump motors); recycling storm water or relatively clean wastewater (irrigation or reuse); use of alternate energy sources (wind, solar, or hydroelectric); and use of high-mileage/alternative-fuel vehicles (bio-fuels, hybrids, and natural gas). (Note: EPA has developed industry-specific EMS implementation guides.)

Recently, Wal-Mart opened a "green store" in McKinney, Texas, that utilizes wind and solar power to reduce its electric costs; it also recycles rainwater for irrigation. Since this store is just north of our office in Dallas, I couldn't help but take a look. I walked away impressed and look forward to more businesses adopting this philosophy.

Environmental Leadership
There are a number of state and federal leadership programs available for companies to take the "next step" in going from polluter to partner in sustainability, and eventually to environmental leader. Many FORTUNE 500 companies have accepted the challenge and become environmental leaders. EPA has implemented the National Environmental Performance Track, which is an excellent way for companies to get recognition, become a lower priority for routine inspections, improve relationships with EPA, and enjoy networking opportunities with companies doing business with "environmentally friendly" companies. The criteria for becoming a performance track member are: EMS for the facility, two past environmental achievements, sustained compliance, continual environmental improvement, and commitment to community outreach. Currently, there are 337 businesses in EPA's performance track (see the full list on the EPA Web site cited below).

In our highly industrialized society, pollution has become an unfortunate byproduct of growth and the consumer lifestyle. Industrial facilities have a variety of compliance issues to deal with (air, stormwater, hazardous and solid wastes, wastewater, etc.). The first step in any company's progression is an assessment of their current compliance status and identification of areas of non-compliance (i.e., compliance audit). Some states have an "audit privilege" provision, which allows them to develop a plan and implementation schedule for environmental compliance without being subject to state and/or federal regulation (enforcement). As companies mature in their environmental stewardship, they implement P2 and sustainability strategies and partner with governmental environmental leadership programs.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Michael Whitehead is the president and owner of W&M Environmental Group, Inc. (W&M) with offices in Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth, Texas. He received his master's degree in Soil Science from the University of Florida. He worked for a large, national consulting firm in Boston and Dallas for a number of years and has owned his own business since 1995. His firm provides a wide range of environmental consulting and engineering services to businesses in Texas and the other EPA Region 6 states. He can be reached at (972) 516-0300.

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