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Green Business is Good Business
Even heavy industry can clean up its environmental act, sometimes without being forced to.

By Miriam Axel-Lute

If 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.

In 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 agencies.

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.

“The 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 its equipment.

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 greenhouse gases.

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 environmental laws.”

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 Web site.)

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.

“If 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.”

“It’s 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 process along.

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 ( 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.

“There’s 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.”

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