AROSS the United States, corporations are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the best way to deal with pollution is not to produce it.
"By now, the regulatory burden [of environmental rules] has caught the attention of most of the big guys" in American industry, says Denny Beroiz, Northrop Corporation's director of total quality.
Northrop's B-2 "stealth" bomber program - although now a likely victim of Pentagon budget cuts - is one example of how corporations are tackling environmental waste at the front end, rather than controlling problems at the "end of the pipe."
Starting in 1990, Northrop cut hazardous-waste byproducts of B-2 production by 60 percent, saving $1.4 million in annual disposal fees.
Additional gains have been made in the air emissions and water discharges, but are less easy to quantify, Mr. Beroiz says.
This month the company is introducing the waste-reduction program to 95 small suppliers.
Mounting environmental costs are making pollution prevention a priority at many companies, "but it's not growing as rapidly as it could or should," says Kevin Mills of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an advocacy group.
"A lot of companies haven't deeply integrated this into their decisionmaking process," adds Terry Foecke of the Waste Reduction Institute for Training and Applications Research in Minneapolis, which is funded jointly by government and industry.
Some of the largest industrial firms, however, have had companywide waste-reduction programs for years.
Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company (3M) led the way in 1975 with a "3P" program, standing for "pollution prevention pays." Dow Chemical Company calls it "waste reduction always pays" (WRAP).
Dow cut emissions at a resins plant in Midland, Mich., by 28 percent by reprogramming its computer controls. The changes took two man-years of work, but virtually no investment in equipment. Cleaner air also saves the company $43,000 a year in raw materials costs.
But the prevailing corporate culture still sees environmental improvements as a sideline operation with low status, says Manik Roy, a pollution prevention specialist with the EDF.
At too many companies, Beroiz says, environmental efforts focus on complying with regulations in disparate areas such as air, water, and solid waste rather than on developing cleaner processes or alternate materials to work with. Several factors, however, are pushing more and more companies down the road of pollution prevention:
* Heavier waste-disposal fees.
* Fear of legal liability for what happens to hazardous waste after they send it to dumps.
* Stricter clean-air and clean-water regulations.
* Public pressure for better environmental performance, which has grown since federal law required firms to release data on their toxic emissions.
* Since 1987, 27 states have enacted programs requiring companies to submit plans for reducing use of chemicals listed as hazardous under federal laws.
Of these state programs, the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) of 1989 is one of the strongest, aiming for a 50 percent cut in the release of specific chemicals by 1997.
"I don't think there's any question we can reach that goal," says Daniel Greenbaum, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "We've already seen large cuts by electronics and chemical companies." He predicts that in many industries the program's targets will be exceeded.
The 50 percent figure is a state goal, not a mandate for any company or industry. But if a company's annual TURA reports, which are public documents, show too little progress relative to comparable firms, the state has authority to impose fines and order improvements.
Private-sector consultants are getting into the act as well.
Environmental Quality Corporation in Waltham, Mass., helps companies revamp their operations to cut pollution. President George McKinney says pollution prevention can be tackled as part of broader quality efforts known in many companies as "total quality management."
"Any waste is an indication of a process that is out of control," he says. Mr. McKinney gives the example of a company his firm is currently working with. Three percent of the material used in the plant ends up as dust. The industry is one with razor-thin profit margins. If that lost material "were converted to product, the profit impact would provide the equivalent of a 35 percent increase in sales," he says.
How far can this good-for-the-environment, good-for-business logic go?
Despite Dow's "waste reduction always pays" motto, program director Joe Lindsly says that not every pollution-reduction project is a money-saver.
"Some segments of industry are going to have to resort to the end-of-pipe approach," rather than pollution prevention, says William Mulligan of Chevron, spokesman for the presidential Commission for Environmental Quality.
The commission was set up last year to encourage nonregulatory environmental progress.
The paper industry, for example, would face huge costs to switch away from the use of chlorine for bleaching pulp, which results in discharge of dioxins. McKinney says that waste could be cut in half by adding chemicals continuously rather than in batches.
Such changes are "slow in coming in part because the paper companies are still resisting" the conclusion that dioxins are hazardous, McKinney says.