Zero Emissions: Revisiting the Entire Production Process

May-June 2006
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Globally, the concern for environmental damage by polluting industrial practices has reached a feverish pitch. Proactive waste management systems practised today are still in the ‘end-of-the-pipe’ phase. They need to move beyond recycling to actually work at minimisation of waste generation. This can be done through revisiting the entire production processes of different industries. Worldwide, companies are waking up to the fact that the only sustainable path into the future is through embracing the zero emissions doctrine. In other words, they are challenging the quality standards. Read on to know more on the trends in pollution laws and pollution control standards.

Global experience with industrial development and economic growth has always grappled with a dangerous side effect - pollution. The relentless march forward is not only good for the people and the nation, but also has a positive global impact on account of its ripple effect on other economies.

Nevertheless, the last decade has also engendered a heated debate-on pollution control and management of effluents. The ball, (an expensive one at that!) has been passed on from the government to the consumer, from the consumer to the polluting industry, and finally passed on to the specific polluting firm. Who then actually takes that call on working to keep pollution negligible, if not non-existent?

The cost versus quality argument
While the debate rages on, it has also churned up a lot of good outcomes. For their part, governments from all over the world are taking a bigger interest in pollution control. There are pollution control boards at the centre and state level that not only work as gatekeepers in checking industries from polluting the environment, but also proactively consult and apply technology to help industries improve. Individual industrial bodies have also taken to the cause and are working on creating a database to help the constituent firms to pollute less, if at all.

Public opinion too has become more voluble; probably because they are experiencing the harm first hand, and are now even more aware of the hazards of pollution. A case in point is the call to ban the use of plastic bags in some cities in India. This drive may not have been a runaway success, but one saw shop-owners as well as sincere citizens trying to make do without that ubiquitous bag. Globally too, there are concerned citizens groups that by their sheer strength in numbers, force companies to toe the line.

On their part, companies too have realised that they could not last long by defying public and consumer action, even if they could circumvent government rules or policies.

They invested in pollution control equipment; effluent treatment plants etc, albeit with poor grace, and felt that they had done their bit to save the earth. What this has done is to help spawn an entire new industry - the pollution control industry; that supplies technology, consultancy and equipment to these industries.

Over time, these companies found to their surprise, that they had actually benefited from the investments they had made. It not only made for better quality but over time also reduced the cost of production. They had a more satisfied customer who was happy with his smoke-free or emission free product. Toeing the line on government diktat had actually delivered tangible benefits.

The stakeholders then moved on to a more ambitious target - zero emissions. This meant tackling a range or problems in a host of industries. It meant dealing with controlling pollution through harmful effluents and toxic waste from industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, textiles, automobiles, power generation and so on. The list was endless.

This led to a strategic shift in the thinking of industry leaders worldwide. They moved from dealing with environmental protection as an ‘end-the-pipe’ issue where they had hitherto invested in effluent treatment plants, to zero emission, where they invested in improving the production process itself in such a way as to ensure zero damage to the environment.

Table 1: Comparison of different approaches

End-of-pipe approachCleaner production approachZero emissions approach (Total Productivity)
Effort made to minimise effects on downstreamEffort made to minimise effects on downstreamNew production processes and even new industries at upper stream
Minimises wasteMinimises wasteCreates greates value addition
Helps reduce costs to minimumHelps reduce costs to minimumHelps increase revenue through new products
Uses existent production processesModifies processes within the framework of existing technologyClusters industries such that waste of one industry is raw material for another industry
Work through finding the antidote or countermeasure at the outletWork through studying the inputs in the process and analysing pollution output and improving the processWork through understanding the output – input connection, that a better and different output can only come in radically rethinking the entire value chain
Deals with isolated problems: polluted water, energy, wastes etc dealt with by fixing plants to clean them upDeals with waste minimisation as an integrated approach through modification of production processZero emission is an integral part of choosing the technology and creating new jobs
Starting pointTransitFinal goal

Pollution control laws
Worldwide, there is a trend towards more stringent pollution laws. In the past, several companies from the, industrialised nations chose to relocate their manufacturing bases to emerging markets in order to avoid pollution control litigation in their own countries. However, this might very soon become a thing of the past. India, for instance, has a central and several state level pollution control boards that look into the waste management practices of potentially polluting industries. There is also an ongoing effort in India to create a zonal atlas that maps the industrial and environmental situation across the country. Companies can use the zonal atlas to find a suitable location across regions and then analyse the economic viability of setting up operations in these locations. Decisions so taken would be beneficial in the long-term.

However, the current practice is that regulatory bodies clear a proposed site for establishing an industry, against set standards for discharge and emission. This is a one-time effort, which neither guarantees that the company will not pollute, nor does it ensure that the pollution control equipment performs its task at the required level of efficiency. Much more needs to be done in the area - the laws need to be more stringent and the law enforcement machinery needs to be given more teeth for the initiative to have more bite.

Public opinion
Public opinion has been slowly and surely turning green. The majority view is that companies must take the onus and adhere to better pollution control standards. This began with a gentle nudge as companies had to conform to the new norms. But, at times, this nudge became a shove, especially when calamities like the Bhopal gas tragedy, Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe or the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened. Globally, as people become more aware, it has become more and more difficult for companies to strike a green stance without substantial evidence. For instance, an ad campaign by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), which stated that cars were less polluting today than a few decades ago, was met with a strong opposition. In response, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) pointed out that an average car today released far more environmentally damaging emissions into the atmosphere than they did 20 years ago. This effort, they said, was an attempt to hide the harmful aspects of the industry.

Public Interest Litigations (PIL) or, action by citizens against environmentally harmful projects, are common in many developing countries. However, as mentioned earlier, law enforcement is poor and this adversely impacts public faith in the system. For instance, it is common knowledge that pollution is rampant in Maharashtra and Gujarat, the two economically strong states in India. In Gujarat, toxic waste being dumped in rivers is case history. In Maharashtra, even getting credible data is difficult. In the hope that the problems would be resolved, people in these areas rallied behind NGOs. There was a spate of PILs filed in these states. However, the fact remains that the judiciary system displays a lack of teeth when it comes to penalising polluting industries, and this has tired out the public voice.

Polluting industries
Using pollution control initiatives as a public relations exercise is passe. With increasing awareness coupled with greater information availability, companies find that they have to put the money where their mouth is. And to their surprise, they have discovered that this is the way forward to greater prosperity.

Be it the automobile sector, the white goods industry or the so-called primary industries like textiles, rubber etc, industry bodies as well as individual companies are now more open to investing in less polluting technologies. They have realised this is the only path available to them.

Zero emission - A paradigm shift
As part of the new paradigm, zero waste has to be embraced with a near religious zeal that goes far beyond recycling waste. At the basic level, it would mean that the producer takes back some part of the product for reuse.

That there are significant barriers to the zero waste drive is evident. If there was resistance to setting up effluent treatment plants in the early 1990s, there are bound to be stronger resistance to making radical shifts in the production process itself. Some of the predominant arguments are:

  • It is an expensive proposition, cost of production will skyrocket
  • We have done our bit; the rest is someone else’s job
  • The government should subsidise this investment
  • Our consumers will not be willing to share these costs with producers
  • Resources are abundant and unlimited; a little pollution would not matter
  • My effort alone will not have an impact, so why should I take this step unless others too agree

The only answer to the above is: polluting industries are inefficient, as research will show. These industries have a short lease of life if they continue down this path. The consumer is already bearing the costs of pollution; they might just be willing to share the price of protection. The governments could subsidise this, but at a cost to you in terms of higher taxes. Best of all, zero emission would allow companies the opportunity to save costs in the long-term.

The zero emission cult
Several companies worldwide are embracing the zero waste doctrine. This doctrine is embedded in the understanding that there are serious limits to the available resources. The ecosystem simply cannot cope with this onslaught. As mentioned earlier, there is a paradigm shift from the ‘end-of-the-pipe’ approach to ‘cleaner production’. While the 'reduce, recycle, reuse' approach has worked very well, the move is to revisit the entire production process. One more daunting fact - modifying one production process is not going to promote the minimisation of waste generation.

Zero emission is only the first step to finding uses for waste in other industries. Hence, a virtual map of the structures of all the industries and the different ecosystems need to be developed.

Achieving zero emission
The automobile industry has collectively spent enormous amounts on research for creating less polluting cars. Some of the research is being done on cars using biogas, solar energy, air, alcohol, liquid nitrogen, etc. Some others like hybrid cars, flexible fuel cars are available in the market today.

General Motors has made major strides in developing a hydrogen powered vehicle that is economically feasible. In partnership with Toyota, the company has been experimenting with fuel cell technology for a number of years. Fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen; with the only by-product being water. This technology is viewed as being far more environment friendly than the currently popular hybrid gas electric engines. The company expects hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to enter the market around 2025 and power 30 per cent of the global stock of vehicles by 2050. Expected oil saving would be to the tune of 13 per cent of global oil demand and 5 per cent of the global energy demand.

Meanwhile, industries dealing with chemical waste have embraced the philosophy of waste minimisation. This is a step forward from waste management. Waste minimisation entails working towards a reduction in the volume and toxicity of the material. These industries have also found that they derive significant benefits from waste minimisation. These include reduced costs associated with disposal, dealing with liabilities and improved working conditions for its employees.

The Tata Chemicals plant at Mithapur in Gujarat is a case in point. The region faced severe drought and the company addressed this even as it minimised effluent production. Solid waste is used for horticulture and liquid effluents are recycled as much as possible. Tata Salt is an example of how zero waste creates new industry, products and jobs - it emerged out of Tata Chemicals’ water management innovations in Mithapur.

Sponge iron manufacturing is yet another polluting industry. In sharp contrast, Tata Sponge Iron, at Bilaipada in Keonjhar district of Orissa, has worked to minimise and treat effluents. Both its kilns are equipped with required pollution control equipment. What is more, there is a mobile vacuum cleaning van to handle the dust generated by loaded vehicles. Waste like residual sludge is dumped in a yard that is covered with soil and used to grow grass and other plants. The fine ash generated in its power plant is converted into strong and useful bricks at a brick plant - yet another example of how the company has used the zero emissions approach to create new industries, products and jobs upstream. Small wonder that the company has bagged awards like ISO-14001 certification for quality management and is the only sponge iron company to bag the GreenTech Environment Excellence Gold Award.

Service industries are no less polluting. And, the hospitality industry too has taken several initiatives to manage solid waste. Maurya Shereton, the Taj Group of Hotels and several others have opted to go green. These include segregating wet and dry garbage for recycling and initiating a supplier programme for returnable packaging. The industry converts waste into usable by-products that are sold for substantial profit. For example, lemon peel is converted to dried powder for facials in beauty parlours. The food garbage is converted into vermiculture beds to produce garden compost.

Other polluting industries like dyes and pigments, textiles and rubber are still working towards recycling waste to reduce pollution. The waste management cycle in the rubber industry includes reuse, recycling and energy recovery before ultimately ending in landfills. Textile waste through consumer and manufacturing sector is also managed through landfills and incineration. However, these are sub-optimal solutions, as landfills or incineration are potentially harmful to the environment.

Zero emission, in the long run, is expected to create jobs and increase revenues. Like other path breaking management tools, viz, zero defects through total quality management and zero inventory through the just in time management, zero emission is also expected to have a positive ripple effect on different industries.

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