P2 and Sustainability

By David Sarokin

The theme of this year’s Pollution Prevention Week is P2: The Cornerstone of Sustainability.

Is it? Can P2 really take us to a future we can honestly say is more sustainable?

Becoming sustainable is about much more than just environmental improvement. When I was working on Agenda 21 – the sustainable development action plan that grew out of the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro – we had the habit of talking about sustainability as a three-legged stool: environmental, economic and social progress, simultaneously, without improvements in one area interfering with progress in the others. I find that old image still aptly sums up what sustainability is about.

P2’s contribution to environmental progress is pretty straightforward. Use fewer material and energy resources and substitute safer chemicals and processes, and there’s less pollution, less toxic exposure, less mess across the board.

But P2 is also about — and has always been about — greater efficiency too, which is a boon to economic sustainability. Another phrase I’ve used innumerable times over the years (well…decades!) is pollution prevention pays, a message still worth repeating. Less waste means more material goes into finished products instead of into the air, water and landfills, resulting in lower costs for production, waste management and environmental compliance. Energy efficiency not only reduces greenhouse gases, but saves oodles of money during manufacture as well during the useful life of our cars, computers and other energy-consuming products. Energy Star led to $18 billion in savings last year (and I suspect that’s a conservative estimate). Commercial estimates have pegged the market in green chemistry at close to $100 billion!

Lastly, P2 builds more sustainable communities in ways both obvious and subtle. This, too, was part of our Agenda 21 focus, as we worked to add tools for community engagement into the sustainability toolbox. There are very few P2 programs that operate with a you-have-to-do-this-or-else mentality. Most of the accomplishments of P2 are built from a cooperative framework with government bureaucrats (and I use that word proudly) working with industry managers, workers on the plant floor, community representatives and environmental organizations to identify concerns, set goals, find at-the-source P2 solutions and monitor progress. The results improve local environmental and economic circumstances, to be sure. But pollution prevention also builds community relations (PDF) that didn’t exist previously, in an air of trust that, over time, becomes self-evidently effective.

This is sustainability at its best. Pollution prevention is at its foundation. The cornerstone, if you will.

About the author: David Sarokin is a proud EPA bureaucrat with a l-o-o-o-n-g history of working in pollution prevention and sustainability, beginning with his 1986 book, Cutting Chemical Wastes.

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