Business is Good Business
heavy industry can clean up its environmental act, sometimes
without being forced to.
the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the words
“industry” and “environment” in the same sentence is a belching
smokestack or a group of citizens trying to prevent a factory
from being placed near their homes, you aren’t alone.
the Capital Region just this year, there are groups battling
fumes from the Norlite aggregate plant in Cohoes [“Chronic
Exposure,” Dec. 4, 2003] and others tracking down the health
effects of depleted uranium use at the National Lead site
in Colonie [“One Half-Life to Live,” Feb. 5]. Citizens groups
are also trying to prevent the zoning of land for a chip-
fabrication plant in Malta, the arrival of a newspaper-recycling
plant in Rensselaer, the building of a cement plant in Hudson,
and the approval of a panel-board manufacturer in Lisbon.
Each of these potential projects has serious and legitimate
problems, from site choice to increasing air pollution, and
those opposing them have strong cases.
But taken as a whole, this trend does leave us in something
of a bind: Industry is something we don’t want to live near.
It also isn’t something that should encourage sprawl by being
put on top of a farm, and presumably isn’t something that
we’d like to have shipped overseas, taking our jobs with it.
So where does that leave us?
One clear, though by no means quick and simple, answer is
to make industry something that we’d want to be our neighbor.
This seems less like a pipe dream now than it might have in
the mid-20th century. A couple of generations of “command
and control” regulations, smokestack scrubbers and hazardous-waste
disposal protocols have made our air and water much cleaner
overall, despite pockets where residents still face serious
health problems from their industrial neighbors.
But some environmentalists are going another step to think
of industry as more than something inherently dirty to be
reined in to barely acceptable levels, and rather as something
that can be substantially improved, even transformed. And
despite the higher-profile companies that continue to try
to fudge their numbers and spin their PR rather than change,
the win-win visionaries are getting some takers.
One of the major concerns with industry is the emissions of
toxics, and one of the best ways to reduce toxic emissions
is not to use toxic inputs in the first place. This approach
is called “source reduction” or “pollution prevention,” and
is the cutting edge among state and federal environmental-protection
Massachusetts is a leader in pollution prevention, having
had a strict toxics-reduction law on the books for 10 years.
As Janet Clark, associate director of information at the University
of Massachusetts Lowell’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute tells
it, the legislation is a compromise that has teeth. “About
12 years ago, the environmental organizations and the state
came together and they said we’re going to ban all toxic materials,”
she recalls. “And they got some momentum because it sounds
good on a ballot, and industry said ‘Oh my gosh, do you know
what you’re saying?’ ”
But that’s when the story diverges from a traditional business-tries-to-sabotage-the-legislation
storyline. “They all came together and said ‘We’ll do this
in a rational way,’ ” says Clark. The resulting bill requires
all users of more than a certain amount of a list of toxic
materials to report their usage (federal regulations only
require reporting of emissions), to make a plan, updated biannually,
for how to reduce that usage, and to pay a fee that goes toward
technical assistance to help companies (including small businesses
that aren’t required to report) find nontoxic alternatives.
The bill passed with flying colors. Ten years later, Massachusetts
industry has reduced its use of toxics by 50 percent and its
emissions by 90 percent.
Toxics Use Reduction Act kind of forces people to take a look
at how they are doing things,” says Don Alger, who is responsible
for updating the toxics-use-reduction plan for Allegro Microsystems,
a silicon-chip fabricator in Worcester, Mass. “I think it
has helped to make us look at things more closely, and make
changes more quickly as it relates to the environment.”
Allegro’s environmental management team has made two major
changes recently that dramatically reduced the company’s toxics
use. The first was to capture the sulfuric acid and hydrogen
chloride that it uses to clean its deionization beds and use
them a second time to neutralize the pH of the wastewater.
Voila, instant halving of the use of both of those acids.
The other change is more dramatic. When Allegro changed wafer
sizes recently, it also changed the type of process used to
fabricate them, from what is called a negative resist to a
positive resist. The important thing to know about the difference
between the two methods is that instead of solvents that need
to be disposed of as hazardous waste, the new process uses
a solution that is 97 percent water and can be made safe for
the sewers by the pH neutralization process.
Even without the formal requirements of a state law, some
companies in New York state have taken similar steps. Many
have been recognized by the Department of Environmental Conservation
Governor’s Pollution Prevention awards.
Similarly to Allegro, for example, but on a much more mundane
product, the Emsig Manufacturing Corporation’s Hudson button
factory won a pollution-prevention award in 1996 for introducing
a closed-loop filtration system that reclaimed and reused
up to 90 percent of the acetone that the company used to clean
While the assumed downside of environmental changes is always
cost, many pollution preventers have found that in the process
they actually save money on purchase, disposal and/or energy.
Perhaps an even larger driver in the long run will be the
need to keep markets open—already electronics manufacturers
are having to rethink their inputs as Europe, Canada and Japan
pass increasingly stricter restrictions on hazardous materials
in products to be sold there. “We try to make people aware
of emerging markets in Europe and Canada that are very aware
of environmental content and performance,” says Clark. “These
are issues that are emerging in the world market, and companies
that respond to that, they will be not only better citizens,
they are going to be there longer.”
Reducing toxic inputs isn’t the only thing that makes a plant’s
emissions more environmentally friendly: Lowering energy use
and the type of fuel, and designing greener buildings [see
“Little Green Houses,” Page 22] can also make a difference
in terms of smog-forming chemicals, storm- water runoff, and
The Owens Corning fiberglass insulation plant in Delmar won
a Governor’s Pollution Prevention award in 2002 for installing
new furnaces that use pure oxygen (rather than regular air)
and natural gas to melt sand into glass. By not having nitrogen
present during combustion, nitrogen oxides, smog-forming compounds,
aren’t created. The new technology lowered Owens Corning’s
NOx output by 270 tons a year.
Of course that decision wasn’t made just to lower smog. Owens
Corning has eight insulation plants, and only a couple are
currently using this technology, because fuel costs in most
locations make regular electric furnaces more cost-efficient.
Jim Worden, who’s in charge of communications on environment,
health and safety for Owens Corning, doesn’t try to paint
it greener than it is. “There’s three things we look at in
terms of melting sand and making glass: cost of fuels, emissions,
and the cost of rebuild,” he says. “It happened in this go-round,
gas looked like the best option. . . . It gave us a good balance
of limiting emissions, keeping the cost competitive.”
New York doesn’t have the comprehensive legislation that Massachusetts
has, but in late March the Assembly did pass A.3464, which
would establish a pollution- prevention-assistance program
for small businesses, to be shared between DEC and the Department
of Economic Development. It has been referred to a Senate
committee. The justification for the bill reads in part, “In
addition to being the best way to help small business achieve
compliance, pollution prevention methods often increase productivity
and efficiency, enhance environmental performance and cut
environmental compliance costs. It makes good economic and
environmental sense to provide assistance to small businesses
that lack the financial means and the technical expertise
needed to achieve pollution prevention and compliance with
Kathy Curtis, executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental
Coalition, is hoping the bill passes. “You can’t just say
‘don’t,’ ‘stop,’ ‘stamp out,’ ‘ban,’ those things all the
time. . . . You need incentives,” she says. “They’re looking
at it like a small-business bill. We’re looking to prevent
pollution.” (DEC referred repeated calls for comment to its
Tweaks in industrial processes and building design are wonderful,
and make very real differences in environmental quality. But
there are some out there who say it’s not enough.
you just try to fix something that exists today, you really
haven’t gone back to first principles and given yourself the
maximum opportunity to do it right,” says Ken Alston of GreenBlue,
a nonprofit that spun off from the work of architect William
McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. GreenBlue’s philosophy
involves taking a look at the products themselves, not just
the processes. “There might be so many things about the car
or the shoe that no matter how hard you try you can’t fix
it because you’re still make the presumption that you have
a car or a carpet or a pair of shoes. It’s a design problem,”
says Alston, with the energy of one used to preaching concepts
that are well ahead of their time.
McDonough and Braungart call their concept “cradle to cradle,”
as opposed to “cradle to grave”—the goal being to mimic nature
so there is no such thing as waste. All energy comes from
the sun, all materials are composted or reused. In this view,
efficiency, something that often seems like the pinnacle of
achievement for environmentalists (how often do we hear about
being resource efficient, energy efficient, water efficient.
. . ), is also something to move beyond.
At every opportunity, cradle-to-cradle proponents wax lyrical
about their favorite metaphor: the cherry tree. When looking
at cherry trees in bloom, says Alston, “We’re in awe and we
think it’s so beautiful. We don’t say ‘Oh my goodness, how
inefficient that tree is. How many blossoms are needed to
set a seed? We don’t think when the blossoms fall off, look
at all that waste.” That, of course, is because the blossoms
go back into the soil. If nothing is turned into waste, you
don’t have to worry so much about how much you use.
Efficiency “is a great thing to do,” says Alston, patiently,
“but you need to be efficient once you’ve decided what’s the
right thing to do. You can be efficient at the wrong thing.
You may just be making something efficient that you never
should have made in the first place.”
an empowering, hopeful vision as opposed to just wagging your
finger at someone and saying ‘You’re ruining the planet,’
” says Alston.
If McDonough, Braungart, and GreenBlue only gave lecture tours,
their radical vision could easily be dismissed as impractical.
But McDonough’s and Braungart’s firm, MBDC, is getting industry
to buy into their visions, gaining clients from Herman Miller
furniture to Nike, and GreenBlue has organized an active industry
group called the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
Of course at the moment, true cradle-to-cradle projects are
a ways off; most of what MBDC does with its clients looks
an awful lot like pollution prevention and green building—though
taken to impressive lengths. They worked with DesignTex, a
high-end textile designer, to remove all toxic materials from
its products—successfully enough that the factory scraps were
processed into a ground covering/mulch product. For Nike,
it was a nontoxic rubber sole.
And the biggest and most touted project of them all is primarily
a green building project: the Ford Rouge River plant. Located
on 2,000 acres in Dearborn, Mich., Rouge River was one of
the largest industrial plants in the country when it was built
in 1915. At one time all Ford vehicles were made there and
it employed 100,000 people. Today it is a decaying, decrepit
wasteland—but the visions for its rebirth include a living
“green roof” that will filter emissions, collect storm-water
runoff, and insulate the building; plants that will clean
contamination from the soil; and natural-gas fuel instead
of coal, to name only a few.
Still, at base the Rouge River plant is so far a green building
project, and McDonough has said he won’t feel totally complete
until it moves to the stage of changing how automobiles are
made and unmade. His goal is that every car will able to be
returned to the assembly line, taken apart and completely
reused for new cars. And that, for him, justifies working
with a car company. “If you have a solar-powered SUV, which
is what we’re going to do, and all the materials are designed
to go back in the automotive system and the tires all degrade
into safe molecules for worms, then I don’t care, drive around
all you want,” he told Wired in February 2002.
As much as some industry leaders are being persuaded to take
the environmental initiative, it’s still a little much to
rely on industry’s good will for the necessary momentum toward
change. After all, as Janet Clark of TURI acknowledges, “Companies
don’t like to change, it costs to change. Companies are not
very flexible.” There are some tools available to speed the
First, there is good old regulation. But instead of merely
receiving fines, which many of the least ethical companies
have simply come to see as a cost of doing business, they
can also be required to do pollution-prevention planning,
environmental audits, or environmental-management planning.
And yes, says Clark, these do sometimes result in more than
token efforts on the part of companies once they realize that
possibilities for compliance go beyond installing more expensive
filters and scrubbers. “Some of the best results have been
because companies have been forced because of a settlement,”
she says. “They have made strides, but they have been brought
to it as part of a law.”
Even award-winning companies acknowledge the power of that
regulatory baseline. “A lot of it is determined by local regulation,”
says Worden of Owens Corning when asked about how the appropriate
balance between emissions control and costs is determined.
“Obviously you have a policy to be in compliance. To stay
within those goals and operate economically is the challenge.”
But direct regulation is limited because it can only set minimum
guidelines. A movement has started for a creative form of
regulation that by being indirect could actually get at the
heart of toxics use much more quickly. It is called extended
producer responsibility, and the idea is quite simple: Producers
must accept responsibility for taking back and disposing of
or recycling their own products. The reasoning is also simple:
Why should municipalities bear the disposal costs for hazardous,
hard-to- recycle products when it was the producers who chose
to make them that way? If producers are responsible for their
products, they’re much more likely to come up with ways to
make those products easy and safe to handle when the consumer
is done with them. For now, the concept is being targeted
at the computer industry.
The European Union already requires electronics manufacturers
to finance e-waste collection and recycling systems, and the
Computer Take Back Campaign (www.computertakeback.com) is
working on similar legislation at state and local levels across
the United States.
And there’s always good old citizen organizing. TURI encourages
creating communitywide or regionwide toxics-use reduction
goals and agreements. “Spend some time bringing people to
the table,” says Clark. “Say, ‘We’re going to set regional
goals in three areas. Let’s put a number out there.’ ” For
example, she says participants could agree to reduce use of
fossil fuels for energy, lead and vinyl. Then, the parties
at the table say how much they will commit toward that goal.
Having industry participation up front is key, says Clark,
who asked an industry representative from Texas whether such
a process could actually be a real motivating factor. She
reports that he said yes, “as long as we’ve been at the table,
and our neighbors are looking.”
What about approaching one particular polluter? Clark is hesitant
about confrontational organizing, because TURI tries to work
with “the industry perspective in front of us.” But she doesn’t
recommend leaving industry to work it out on its own either.
Citizens should get informed, and then see themselves as part
of a problem-solving team, she says. They should approach
a company by saying “We know what you’re using, we know why
you’re using it, we’ve looked at some of the alternatives,
can you talk to us about whether that would work?”
When a community is dealing with potential, rather than existing
industries, the options open far wider. Any business that
is getting public subsidies can be required to give back to
its community in any of a variety of agreed upon ways. Many
communities have used this leverage to require local-hiring
agreements, minority-contracting preferences, or affordable-housing-unit
set-asides. Toxics-use reduction and other environmental benefits
could also be a part of such a negotiation.
Citizens’ Environmental Coalition is taking a negotiating
approach with a plant expansion in Buffalo, and it’s aiming
high: It wants the plant to make something different. CertainTeed,
a building products manufacturer and large producer of vinyl,
wants to expand a vinyl-fabrication plant it has in a Buffalo
suburb to a larger space on the Buffalo waterfront. The fabrication
plant works with raw vinyl produced in Louisiana. CEC is one
of many environmental groups encouraging a complete phase-out
of vinyl, which CEC Western NY director Michael Schade says
is toxic “through its entire lifecycle.” Four of the 12 pollutants
listed in the Persistent Organic Pollutants treaty are found
in vinyl, he notes.
The interesting thing is that CertainTeed already produces
some of vinyl’s alternatives, include cement composite and
cross-linked polypropylene. Combine that, says Schade, with
the fact that Buffalo is such an economically deprived area,
and it made sense for the group to ask CertainTeed to open
a non-vinyl plant rather than just to oppose the expansion
at all. “We want jobs, but we want safe jobs,” he says. “So
we decided the angle we would take on it would be to work
with the company and environmental health and safety groups.”
They’re even willing to consider a temporary vinyl plant,
as long as the company has committed to phasing it out.
The campaign is at its early stages. CertainTeed just responded
Monday (April 19) to CEC’s letter requesting a meeting, and
hasn’t put out any specific proposals yet, says Schade. Meanwhile,
the group is organizing citizen pressure.
The philosophy of looking at what’s being made, not just how
it’s made, is an important one as long as the transition to
the cradle-to-cradle philosophy is still in the distance.
For communities whose economic-development agencies seem bent
on attracting business no matter what, Neil Seldman of the
Institute for Local Self-Reliance encourages citizens to push
for a policy of soliciting explicitly green industries.
enough sustainable activities to create a zero-waste industrial
park,” he says, rattling off a quick list of appealing options:
deconstruction companies, which take apart and reuse the components
from old buildings (as opposed to demolition); computer recycling
facilities; electronics manufacturers that are selling to
Europe and therefore meeting European standards; composting;
rubber recycling; healthy building materials. “We have a foothold,”
he says. “There’s enough of a foothold that Albany could do
something without risk.”