Pollution prevention federal action strategy: chapter 3

The Environmental Protection Hierarchy

The key environmental component of sustainable development is a shift to preventive environmental care. The long term goal of environmental protection is to prevent the creation of pollutants and waste and to produce durable, recyclable, less 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 at reducing risks to human health and the environment in a fundamentally different way. It seeks to eliminate the causes of pollution rather than treating the symptoms, reflecting a major shift in emphasis from "control" to "prevent". 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. Thus, consideration and use of options for pollution prevention must precede decisions to reuse and recycle off-site. Off-site reuse and recycling are desirable and complementary to pollution prevention.

Certain types of energy recovery (e.g., capturing methane from landfills) can have positive aspects, but energy recovery can also carry significant risk. Energy from waste incineration remains controversial for many people because it can create toxic air emissions. Prevention and recycling are preferable to waste incineration.

By limiting the release of pollutants into the environment, pollution control makes a significant contribution to 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 pollution prevention approach. The same holds true for strict requirements to clean up. Remediation costs totalling billions of dollars make a compelling case for pollution prevention.

Diagram - 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.

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