Customers returned 65 percent of all empty print and copy cartridges to Xerox for recycling in 1997, an industry high. And most probably did it with little thought of closing the loop of manufacturing, use, recycling, and reuse.
Xerox has been reclaiming metals from its product components since 1967, and "unofficially" accepting trade-in machines from customers for almost as many years. The company initiated its Environmental Leadership program in 1990, with the goal of producing waste-free products from waste-free factories. Today, remanufactured machines are a significant—and profitable—part of the company's product line, and new products are designed so they can be recycled. In 1997 alone, Xerox remanufactured equipment from more than 30,000 tons of returned machines.
"The more we close the loop in the product delivery process, the more we discover the environmental and business benefits of doing so," according to the company's position statement. "By remanufacturing and designing for the environment, we reduce our costs, minimize the effect we have on the planet, and please our customers. We are convinced that being good to the environment is also good for business—and have every intention of keeping it that way."
Recycling, around since at least the first Earth Day in 1970, has long been promoted as a strictly environmental issue and is often couched in terms that pit it against business and industry. But in reality, recycling and environmental issues in general are also important economic issues, and business and industry play a vital role in the success of recycling programs.
Business and industry's efforts to find a balance between environmental and economic interests has bred a new way of thinking and created the sustainable development movement.
Birth of a Movement
More than just a plan to balance environmental and economic issues, sustainable development has evolved into a movement; Our Common Future, a 1986 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, is its seminal document. Also referred to as The Bruntland Report, the document defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Policymakers and environmental scientists spent the next decade refining the underlying ideology.
Over the same period, governments around the world embraced sustainable development efforts with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The Netherlands and other western European countries have lent substantial government support to green technology initiatives. Russia, many of the former Soviet Bloc countries, and most of the Arab world have been slower to embrace them.
In the United States, the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), established by President Clinton in 1993, spearheads national-level debate over how to achieve a new type of prosperity based on sustainable development. Its 30 members include representatives from industry, government, and environmental, Native American, and civil rights organizations. The secretaries of agriculture, commerce, energy, and interior also sit on the council, along with Carol Browner, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
PCSD will hold a National Town Meeting May 2–5, in Detroit, Michigan, to examine municipal-level activities that implement sustainable development goals. (For more information on the meeting, see www.sustainableamerica.com.)
From Idea to Action
Environmental concerns first surfaced as a key concern for industry in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. In the United States, this shift in attitudes followed the introduction of comprehensive environmental regulations designed to curb rampant pollution of the nation's air and water. The vast majority of these new regulations focused on the "end of pipe" pollution, such as waste discharges and atmospheric releases.
But, end-of-pipe control measures, while effective, are not the most cost-effective means of pollution control. Even as industry worked to comply with the new federal regulatory standards, it began to experiment with new approaches to controlling pollution. Two of those approaches—industrial ecology and pollution prevention—have altered standard manufacturing practice.
Industry has yet to create such a system, in part because trends toward decentralization and the devolution of vertically integrated production systems make it difficult to impose company-wide changes. The high cost of changing existing infrastructure poses additional barriers. Nevertheless, industry has made great strides toward closed loop systems by developing pollution prevention practices.
Pollution prevention practices differ fundamentally from other, more typical pollution reduction practices. Rather than simply decreasing the amount of toxic chemicals released into the environment, pollution prevention reduces the quantity of toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process itself.
For example, at one of its facilities in Deepwater, New Jersey, DuPont uses phosgene, an extremely hazardous gas. DuPont redesigned the production line at this plant to produce phosgene on site and to consume most of the gas used in the manufacturing process shortly afterward. Today, DuPont no longer ships large amounts of phosgene to the plant, avoiding the risk of dangerous transportation spills or storage accidents, and produces far less of the gas at the facility as a waste product.
Polaroid achieved similar results company-wide through its voluntary Toxic Use and Waste Reduction (TUWR) program. Begun in 1987, TUWR encompasses all materials Polaroid uses by grouping chemicals into four categories and all other materials into a fifth category. Managers then set different reduction objectives for each category, such as reducing toxic chemical use or reducing the generation of byproducts, and tracked Polaroid's progress toward the goals. Over the first five years, the TUWR program helped Polaroid use 37 percent less of the most toxic chemicals and save $19 million through waste reductions.
Dow Chemical also saved big bucks thanks to several initiatives clustered under its Environment, Health, and Safety management system. For example, in 1981 one of Dow's Louisiana subsidiaries began an energy conservation program in which managers challenged employees to develop methods to improve efficiency. Each conservation project, however, had to cost less than $200,000 and produce more than a 100 percent return on investment. That first year, Dow invested in 27 projects at a total cost of $1.7 million and received a 173 percent return on its investment. Today, Dow continues to build on that foundation as a signatory to a chemical industry initiative known as Responsible Care.
The Canadian Chemical Producers Association created the Responsible Care pledge in 1985; signatories agree to implement six codes of management practice: community awareness and response; process safety; distribution; environment, health, and safety; product stewardship; and pollution prevention. Collectively, these codes focus on improving environmental stewardship in all stages of a chemical's use, from research and design through manufacturing, use, and disposal. The initiative has spread to more than 40 countries.
Dow's "Global Responsible Care Awards" recognize the success of employees at its facilities around the world in implementing these codes of practice. This year more than 80 teams competed for nine awards. Each winning team receives a $5,000 contribution to be directed to the nonprofit environment, health, and safety organization of its choice.
The New Standard
Kate Gibney is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Virginia
Illustration by Stan Watts
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