Pollution Prevention Gets a Powerful Prod

SCIENCE COMMENTARY

AS noted in last week's column, the climate of opinion on pollution in the United States is undergoing a sea change. There's a slow, but inevitable, shift away from trying to control pollution after the fact toward minimizing production of nasty wastes in the first place. This shift is, to some extent, self-reinforcing. The more it costs to deal with the wastes, the more waste producers will try to minimize them. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers an instructive example.

MIT labs store and use hundreds of different chemicals. It now costs more to get rid of used chemicals and unused but unwanted supplies than it costs to buy them. So MIT is trying to cut back purchases to match actual needs and thus substantially reduce the 125,000 pounds of filled or partly filled waste containers it has had to get rid of each year. The MIT weekly, Tech Talk, notes that 50 to 60 of these drums leave the institute every 10 days at a cost of $14,700. That's about one year's tuition for an undergraduate.

The report further notes that many junked containers were never opened. It's a straight throughput from manufacture to disposal, because scientists won't use surplus chemicals from someone else's lab and vendors won't take the products back. John M. Fresina, director of the Safety Office, explains that this becomes intolerably wasteful when it costs $48 to get rid of a pound of sodium someone bought for $36 and never used, or $32 to junk a $17 gallon of benzine.

Thus buying chemicals in bulk or ``just to have on hand'' is no longer an acceptable practice. ``In the long run it will be cheaper to buy chemicals for particular purposes in smaller quantities to minimize - or eliminate - waste,'' Mr. Fresina says.

This vignette foreshadows the future for both the United States and the global economies. Costs of pollution control - which ultimately means waste disposal - have nowhere to go but steeply upward. This, basically, is because we literally have nowhere to store our wastes safely.

Pollution control usually means taking something out of an effluent stream. But that only moves the waste from one medium to another. Toxic substances removed in sewage treatment end up in increasingly scarce landfills. Materials scrubbed from power plant gases become solid wastes. Some 85 percent of the MIT chemical waste is incinerated, producing more solid wastes. Anything dumped in the sea is apt to come back through marine food chains or wash up on someone's beach.

As disposal capacity becomes a scarce commodity, its price will certainly escalate. This is one reason why the US Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board last year concluded that ``a strategic shift in emphasis from control and cleanup to anticipation and prevention [of pollution] is absolutely essential to our future physical, environmental, and economic health.''

In Environmental Science & Technology last January, Joel S. Hirschhorn of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment pointed out that ``commitment to pollution prevention does not imply a belief that all pollution can be eliminated.'' But the maximum feasible prevention is needed to reduce unavoidable pollution to manageable proportions. Prevention, Mr. Hirschhorn adds, will not be easy. That, he says, is why it needs a prominent place on the public agenda to become a ``commonly valued and applied tool used for all environmental problems.''

As MIT's experience shows, the rising costs of disposal are a powerful prod to this kind of thinking.

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