HAZARDOUS waste is no longer being considered the inevitable result of industry. Increasingly, the problem is being handled ``upstream'' in the production process, before it becomes costly toxic wastes that must be disposed of. The notion seems so obvious that you hardly would think it needs to be promoted. But it is an idea that only now is beginning to catch on. Often called ``source reduction,'' it takes many forms. Production processes can be altered to reduce the amount of waste generated, for example, or materials substituted in the product itself. It can also apply to a range of services, such as dry cleaners that use potentially dangerous solvents.
Environmentalists, businesses, and governments around the world have talked about reducing waste at its source for years.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe held a conference on ``non-waste technologies'' in 1976 and has continued working on the subject. Meanwhile, the governments of Austria, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands are among those that fund programs aimed at reducing industrial waste.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more than a decade ago established waste reduction as the ideal option in a hierachy of waste-handling techniques. Second on the list is recycling of materials; last is disposal.
But despite this high rating, little has been done to nudge businesses into action. A 1986 study by the Office of Technology Assessment found that less than 1 percent of federal and state environmental spending is devoted to reducing generation of hazardous wastes.
``What's really driving waste reduction is the fact that it's getting very expensive and difficult to dispose of these materials in the land,'' says J. Winston Porter, the EPA's assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response.
Dr. Porter contends that the environmental agency is doing a great deal to promote the cause, including giving its support for a range of educational and research projects.
Still, critics argue that the structure of government environmental programs in some ways contributes to the problem. Environmental regulations focus attention on the ``end of the pipe.'' Companies spend so much time and money trying to grapple with the waste they generate that little attention or resources can be devoted to what's happening farther up the line.
Moves are under way on Capitol Hill to develop legislation that supports reduction of hazardous wastes at the source, including a plan to establish a permanent federal office devoted to the subject. But some lawmakers say government intervention is not needed.
``What we need is strong implementation of existing laws,'' says Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey. ``That would make waste disposal more expensive'' and spur company efforts to reduce the amount of waste they produce, he says.
But advocates argue economics is not enough. The debate now going on is whether to use a carrot or a stick, or some combination of the two.
``There's no controversy over the benefits,'' says Joel Hirschhorn, senior associate at the Office of Technology Assessment and author of the agency's report on waste reduction. ``But the jump in logic comes when people say businesses will voluntarily take the path to get those benefits.''
In many companies, long-established production processes are not easily changed. ``You often are up against the wrong attitudes - older engineers who feel they've already optimized their processes,'' says Dr. Hirschhorn, who is now working on a follow-up report for Congress that focuses on a range of policy options.
Several major companies, including Dow Chemical Company and Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing (3M), have programs aimed at promoting source reduction. But experts say it is difficult to gauge whether such efforts indicate a broader trend.
``What you find is a relatively small number of industry people speaking out to give examples of what they're doing right,'' says Hirschhorn. ``But you have no way of knowing whether it illustrates what the whole company is doing, much less an entire industry.''
A key problem in measuring the potential for waste reduction is the lack of reliable information on the volume and type of waste being generated at thousands of locations across the country.
David Roe, a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, says, ``The key missing piece of the puzzle is just how much waste and potential for reductions we're talking about.''
He likens the current push for source reduction to the drive for energy conservation a decade ago. Everyone was for it, he says, but few knew what it would take to actually accomplish significant savings and whether it was worth it. Many experts are hopeful that new reporting requirements under the amended federal Superfund law will begin to give a clearer picture of the dimensions of the problem.
In the meantime, many state and local initiatives are under way. In California, the Metropolitan Water District of southern California has joined with the Environmental Defense Fund to try to pinpoint sources of hazardous waste there. The goal is to identify places where reduction might be possible.
Some 20 states have launched programs to encourage waste reduction. In Minnesota, which has one of the nation's most mature programs, chemical engineering students are sent out to companies to help them plan waste-reduction strategies.
At the state-government level is ``where things are happening these days,'' says David Sarokin, author of a study on source reduction by Inform, a New York-based environmental group.
Mr. Sarokin surveyed 29 organic chemical plants to find out what they were doing to reduce hazardous wastes. Only 12 could document any efforts. And, even in these cases, the progress was ``sporadic.''
Why scrap dealers say `no' to batteries Alexandria, Va.
A METAL claw digs into the crumpled car and hoists it up to the mouth of a conveyor belt that juts high into the air.
Dust kicks up as the hulk reaches the shredder, where massive blades whack it into a tangle of small pieces. At the other end of the machine, men pick through the rubble looking for unwanted materials, such as broken glass and plastic.
This seems an unlikely place to worry about potentially hazardous materials that go into the manufacture of new products. But that's exactly what Stanley Asrael, owner of this scrap yard, is doing.
``We don't even allow electrical transformers in the gate anymore,'' he says, stepping across a muddy tire track, ``because of the PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] they carry.''
In recent years, scrap yards have reexamined many of the items they once accepted - old refrigerators with potentially dangerous chemicals in their cooling systems, appliances with cadmium-based paints, and car batteries laden with lead and acid. Many yards no longer accept these items.
The scrap dealers say that too much of this stuff could destroy their businesses, since it might make them subject to federal regulations governing the generation and treatment of hazardous waste.
Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate scrap metal as a hazardous waste. But dealers are concerned. In the past, they seldom knew the precise contents of items that they accepted. Meanwhile, operations such as shredding generate large amounts of waste which might one day be classified as hazardous itself.
So it's not surprising that scrap dealers are among the most vocal advocates of reductions in the use of hazardous materials in the factory. The Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel, the association that represents scrap dealers, has even launched a ``design for recycling'' campaign. The institute hopes to encourage manufacturers to substitute nonhazardous materials in their products whenever possible.
Scrap processors have a bottom-line interest in seeing that hazards be eliminated upstream: It saves them the trouble. Each car that is shredded at Mr. Asrael's yard, for instance, has to be checked to be sure the battery, gas tank, and exhaust system are removed.
``At some point, there won't be enough clean stuff for us to handle,'' says Hershel Cutler, executive director of the institute. Large storage tanks and barrels also cause trouble for recyclers, he says. The dealers must be sure that the containers are clean before accepting them. However, the cost of cleaning often exceeds their scrap value.
Concern over hazardous materials has already cut into the recycling of some items, says Mr. Cutler. For example, six years ago 90 percent of old car batteries were recycled. Today, that figure has dropped to 60 percent. Part of the problem is economics - the price of lead is down - but many scrap yards also refuse to handle old batteries.
Some experts worry that, as options for recycling close down, a growing amount of hazardous waste will make its way into ordinary landfills.
New techniques, processes help business and military clean up
Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, has developed an alternative technique for stripping paint from airplanes and other equipment. The base had been using a solvent - usually an acidic methylene chloride solution - to loosen the paint before scraping and washing. Washing generated thousands of gallons of contaminated water. The process also released noxious fumes.
The new technique is a modified version of sandblasting, using recoverable plastic beads instead of sand. Waste from this process is pulverized paint mixed with beads. The method has some limitations, however. It cannot be used to strip some types of coatings and can damage windows and other nonmetalic surfaces.
A 3M plant in Minnesota found that it was discharging ammonium sulfate through its waste-water treatment system directly into a river. The ammonium sulfate was a byproduct of a process used to make magnetic oxides for recording products. Since the waste chemical was diluted with millions of gallons of water, it was impractical to try to remove it at the waste-water facility. So the factory went after the ammonium sulfate within the production process. An evaporation procedure was used that sprayed the waste stream on hot tubes, gradually removing the ammonia. The processed waste was then sold as fertilizer. The company figures it saved $1 million on pollution-control devices it didn't have to buy, while making $150,000 a year on sales of fertilizer. The evaporator cost $1.5 million.
Dry cleaners throughout the country use perchloroethylene, a powerful solvent, to clean clothes. Since 1970, Dow Chemical has worked to reduce the amount of this chemical released into the environment by educating dry cleaners on how to use it more efficiently and dispose of wastes properly. Through a combination of improved technology - particularly machines that recycle solvent - and tighter processes, the amount of this chemical used in the marketplace has been declining steadily at a rate of 1 to 2 percent a year. New machinery, used by more than half the dry cleaners in the United States, will clean about three times the number of clothes with the same amount of solvent as older machines.
One factor driving innovation in this case is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which forbids land disposal of perchloroethylene after 1988.
Cleo Wrap, the world's largest producer of Christmas wrapping paper, recently completed a changeover from organic solvent-based printing inks to water-based inks in all its operations. The old process used organic solvents - a source of hazardous waste - for cleaning presses. The new technique allows the company to use nonhazardous water-based cleaning solutions and soap.
In 1984, the last year of a six-year phase-in of water-based inks, the plant reported generating 147 tons of ignitable hazardous waste. The company plans to apply for status as a ``small-quantity generator'' of hazardous waste. And Cleo has been able to eliminate all of its above- and below-ground solvent storage tanks.