Pollution prevention explained

What Is Pollution Prevention?

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999) defines pollution prevention (P2) as "the use of processes, practices, materials, products, substances or energy that avoid or minimize the creation of pollutants and waste and reduce the overall risk to the environment or human health."

Simply put, P2 is about avoiding the creation of pollution and waste, rather than trying to clean it up or manage it after the fact.

What Is in a Name?

Even if you have never heard of P2 before, you might already know what it is. P2 is just one of many names that describe an environmentally conscious way of behaving. Here are some other terms that share some of the theories behind P2:

  • Source reduction
  • Eco-efficiency
  • Cleaner production
  • Green chemistry
  • Sustainable chemistry
  • Eco-design
  • Design for environment
  • Life-cycle analysis
  • Waste minimization
  • Zero waste
  • Sustainable production
  • Lean manufacturing

Pollution Prevention Techniques

P2 opportunities can be found throughout any operation. The ways in which P2 is achieved vary from one sector to another, but typically there are seven common techniques:

  1. Materials or Feedstock Substitution deals with replacing the substances and products you use.
  2. Product Design or Reformulation deals with improving the overall environmental impact of your product(s).
  3. Equipment or Process Modification deals with how you make whatever it is you make or do whatever it is you do.
  4. Spill and Leak Prevention deals with making sure you do not accidentally pollute.
  5. On-site Reuse, Recycling or Recovery deals with what you do with your waste and waste by-products.
  6. Inventory Management or Purchasing Techniques deals with how you store your goods/materials and how you buy your goods/materials.
  7. Good Operating Practice or Training deals with the human element of your operations.

What Is Not Considered Pollution Prevention?

Treating wastewater, filtering air emissions and using landfills for solid waste are all methods of controlling pollution after it is generated. Controlling or treating pollution is not P2 and can be more costly. For example, when wastewater from a factory or a home is treated, the water ends up cleaner, but the factory is then left with sludge made up of all the materials that were filtered out of the water and which needs to be disposed of on land. In other words, some types of pollution control or treatment simply move the pollution from one type of medium (i.e., air, water, land) to another.

Examples of activities that are not P2 include:

  • Any kind of waste treatment or pollution control.
  • Recycling that takes place outside of the building or industry. Although recycling does help reduce the amount of garbage sent for disposal, it does not prevent pollution. Energy and money still need to be spent to recycle the materials (i.e., melting plastic or glass into new objects).
  • Transferring hazards or toxics from one medium to another (i.e., from air to water or land to air).
  • Diluting or making something less toxic or hazardous by adding water or another substance.
  • Dust suppression.

These all work to control or manage the pollution once it has already been created. Remember: P2 stops the pollution or waste from being produced.

Pollution Prevention: What Is in It for Me?

General Public

The main ways the general public can practice P2 in their everyday lives are by conserving water, conserving energy, practising green purchasing, and making environmentally conscious transportation decisions. Whatever the method, there are three main potential benefits to P2:

  • Doing your part to protect the environment
  • Saving money
  • Keeping your family safer by reducing the amount of harmful substances in your household.


1. P2 is good for business

 P2 usually:

  • increases staff motivation through reduced worker risks and higher reliance on active worker participation in idea generation and implementation;
  • increases productivity through more efficient use of energy and raw materials;
  • reduces long-term liabilities that companies may face many years after pollution has been generated or disposed of at a given site;
  • lowers production costs by avoiding or reducing pollution control and waste treatment and disposal costs;
  • reduces consumer risks associated with products containing hazardous substances;
  • avoids regulatory compliance costs;
  • provides evidence of due diligence;
  • leads to insurance savings;
  • provides enhanced access to capital from financial institutions and lenders;
  • requires little capital investment or provides a rapid to moderate return on any capital or operating investments required;
  • is supported by employees, local communities, customers and the public;
  • is aligned with and may help compliance with health and safety regulations.

2. P2 is good for human and environmental health

P2 usually:

  • results in the substitution of less or non-toxic substances for toxic materials;
  • prevents accidental and operational releases or spills;
  • reduces the risk of environmental accidents;
  • produces whole life-cycle product improvements that can reduce dangerous exposures during a product's use or during its end-of-life disposal;
  • reduces pollutant releases.

Pollution Prevention and the Environmental Protection Hierarchy

The long-term goal of environmental protection is to prevent the creation of pollutants and waste and to produce durable, recyclable, non-hazardous goods. While all environmental protection methods provide some benefits, opportunities for reducing environmental and health risks and associated costs are greater at the top of the environmental protection hierarchy.

Pollution prevention aims to reduce risks to human health and the environment by eliminating the causes of pollution rather than treating the symptoms, reflecting a major shift in emphasis from "control" to "prevention." It encourages the kinds of changes that are likely to lead to lower production costs, increased efficiencies and more effective protection of the environment.

Off-site reuse and recycling of pollutants and waste are valued methods of environmental protection that can offer environmental and economic benefits. Yet with their use, environmental risks and impacts could also increase as a result, for example, of increased transportation or the production of waste and pollutants associated with the recycling operation.

Certain types of energy recovery (e.g., capturing methane from landfills) can have positive aspects, but they can also have risks. For example, energy from waste incineration remains controversial for many people because of concerns about toxic air emissions.

By limiting the final release of pollutants into the environment, pollution control supports environmental protection. But control strategies can be inefficient. For example, many pollution control devices transfer the discharge of pollutants from water to land or air. As well, "end-of-pipe" controls that are designed to capture pollutants before they are released usually result in high, non-productive capital and operational costs that add no value to the goods or services that are being produced.

Secure disposal carries a high cost; strong regulatory requirements for proper disposal have been an incentive to use the P2 approach. The same holds true for strict remediation requirements, which make a compelling case for P2.

 Figure 1: The Environmental Protection Hierarchy

Figure 1: Environmental Protection Hierarchy
Figure 1: The Environmental Protection Hierarchy

This diagram, entitled The Environmental Protection Hierarchy, depicts an inverted triangle featuring all of the components of environmental protection described in the text above. While all environmental protection methods provide some benefits, the opportunities for reducing environmental and health risks and associated costs are greater at the top of the environmental protection hierarchy and thus at the top of the diagram, as indicated by the fact it is the widest section of the inverted triangle. Going from top to bottom within the inverted triangle, thus from most effective to somewhat effective, the components of the environmental protection hierarchy are: pollution prevention, reuse and recycle, energy recovery, pollution control, disposal, and remediation.

While all environmental protection methods provide some benefits, the opportunities for reducing environmental and health risks and associated costs are greater at the top of the environmental protection hierarchy and thus at the top of the diagram.

For more detailed information on environmental protection, visit Pollution Prevention: A Federal Strategy for Action. 

Pollution Prevention and the Federal Government

Pollution Prevention: A Federal Strategy for Action

In 1995, the Government of Canada published Pollution Prevention: A Federal Strategy for Action. This strategy stresses the need to make P2 a part of our everyday activities and decisions, whether as governments, as companies, as communities or as individuals.

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999) is one of the federal government's main environmental protection authorities.

The primary purpose of CEPA 1999, as stated in its declaration, "is to contribute to sustainable development through pollution prevention."

CEPA 1999 also identifies P2 as the preferred means of protecting the environment.

Pollution Prevention Plans and Pollution Prevention Planning Notices

P2 planning is a process to examine current operations and develop a plan to eliminate or reduce pollution at the source. A P2 Plan is similar to any other business plan. Management and staff need to have a clear understanding of why the plan is being implemented, what will be done and who will do it. Such plans can target a specific pollutant, an entire production process or the whole facility.

Part 4 of CEPA 1999 gives the Minister of the Environment the authority to require the preparation and implementation of P2 Plans to manage substances that have been added to the List of Toxic Substances in CEPA 1999.

For more information on P2 Plans and P2 planning notices, visit Environment Canada's Pollution Prevention Planning website.

The National Pollutant Release Inventory

The National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) is Canada's legislated, publicly accessible inventory of pollutant releases (to air, water and land), disposals and transfers for recycling.  

The NPRI has yearly reporting requirements and deadlines. In each reporting year, companies can list the P2 activities they have undertaken. Environment Canada analyzes the results to identify new P2 initiatives and help gauge the overall status of P2 in Canada.

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Privacy statement

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: