A FUNNY thing happened on the way to the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22: American industry became its biggest booster. Once skeptical about the bottom-line impact of environmental restrictions, many companies have found that environmentalism pays.
American industry has spent an estimated $1 trillion to preserve and protect the environment over the past quarter-century. The results have been impressive: improvements in the air we breathe and in rivers, streams, and soil. Over the last 25 years, the attitude of many companies toward environmentalism has gone from avoidance to compliance to enthusiasm. Today, many companies are way ahead of government regulators. Consider:
* 3M started its Pollution Prevention Pays program in 1975. The program has spawned over 4,000 projects that have eliminated 1.3 billion pounds of pollutants while saving over $710 million. The company is so enthusiastic about its environmental programs that it devotes more than 15 percent of its research-and-development budget to such projects.
* Dupont is also making pollution-control pay. Its synthetic rubber used to be packaged in paper bags, which customers had to dispose of. Now, the rubber is packaged in a bag that melts along with it, enhancing the final product.
* Cooper Tire & Rubber launched its waste-minimization program in 1991. Within three years it had cut the waste from its main plant in Findley, Ohio, by nearly half; converted over three-quarters of raw material shipments packaging into returnable, reusable, or bulk containers; and recycled 323 tons of paper products, 738 tons of plastic, 390 tons of tire byproducts, and 8,000 tons of other material that formerly went into landfills.
* Dow Chemical has spent $11 million over the past three years to fund projects that will eliminate 56 million pounds of hazardous and nonhazardous waste. The projects are expected to generate over $12 million in savings. The results of adding an environmental category to every employee's appraisal form in 1992 have been staggering. A few simple employee-suggested changes in its plant in Midland, Texas, eliminated 60 percent of the waste that used to wind up in landfills, saving $310,000 in annual dumping fees and $420,000 a year in increased efficiency.
Environmentalism pays in other ways too. Reducing waste is an important part of becoming a low-cost producer. Low environmental impact often results in higher-quality products, factors increasingly important in global competition.
The problem is in Washington, where most federal environmental laws are poorly managed and have failed to change with the times. Regulatory objectives are often not based on sound science and a careful comparison of costs and benefits.
According to a new study by the nonpartisan National Academy of Public Administration, we spend more than we need to on environmental protection because there is no requirement to find efficient solutions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) misses the opportunity to inspire bigger environmental improvements at lower costs because of excessive bureaucratic control, red tape, and congressional micromanagement, says the report.
The EPA, for instance, insisted on its own rigid technical specifications to reduce benzene emissions from an oil refinery waste-water treatment plant at a cost of $31 million, instead of allowing the company to use its own approach that would have reduced four times as much benzene at a cost of only $6 million.
Legislation that has already passed the House and is now pending in the Senate would provide badly needed flexibility to manufacturers trying to improve the environment. The bill would require regulators to prioritize risks to health and safety, use good science, and subject the findings to peer review.
Allowing greater use of market-based approaches, which emphasize economic incentives rather than punishment, has proven to yield better environmental results. Unleashing the full power of private-sector ingenuity on the remaining environmental problems will ensure that we have as much to be proud of at the 50th anniversary of Earth Day as we do at the 25th.