United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 3: Policy Responses and Directions

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Current Changes in Approaches to Environmental Policy

Cleaner and Leaner Production

As illustrated in the regional policy sections, countries are moving towards cleaner production and eco-efficiency, and a shift can be seen from cleaner processes to cleaner products and/or services. Government environmental policies to stimulate market partners to move from end-of-pipe solutions to more integral approaches and accounting on a "cradle-to-grave" basis are being tested in a number of countries. Cleaner, more resource-efficient production applies not only to industrial production processes, but also to agriculture, fisheries, forestry, transportation, and so on. There is an obvious and urgent need to distribute this knowledge and expertise world-wide.

Cleaner production is "the continuous improvement of industrial processes and products to reduce the use of resources and energy; to prevent the pollution of air, water, and land; to reduce wastes at source; and to minimize risks to the human population and the environment" (UNEP, 1994a). Increasing the sustainability of products and services can be achieved by such measures as (UNEP/IE, RIVM,ILO, and Wuppertal Institute, personal communication, 1996):

  • input substitution: using less toxic material; using materials with a longer service lifetime;

  • technology change: replacing technology or process sequence to increase resource efficiency and to minimize waste and emission rates;

  • equipment modification: changing existing equipment and utilities to run processes at higher resource efficiency and at lower waste and emission rates;

  • better process control: using working procedures, machine instructions, and process record keeping to run processes at higher efficiency and at lower waste and emission rates;

  • good housekeeping: preventing leaks and spills, and enforcing existing working instructions;

  • on-site re-use: using waste in the same process or for other useful applications within the company;

  • production of useful by-products: modifying waste generation processes in order to promote re-use outside the company;

  • changes in product design: reducing resource use and waste and emission rates; and

  • improved management: ensuring a safe and healthy working environment, with good collaboration between management and workers, effective training, and development of partnerships among stakeholders in the enterprise and the community.

The key difference between pollution control and cleaner and leaner production is one of timing: from "notice and treat" to "anticipate and prevent" or from "cure" to "prevention." Cleaner production leads to reductions of resource use and in amounts of waste and emissions generated. Achievable reductions of 50 per cent to 75 per cent are more and more the rule rather than the exception; reductions of 90 per cent are no longer uncommon either. (See Box 3.4.) The challenge is to achieve increases in efficiency and reductions in pollution and other forms of degradation by about one order of magnitude, as several prominent figures from different countries are advocating through the international Factor 10 Club they established in 1995 (Factor 10 Club, 1995).

Box 3.4.

Examples of Possible Resource Efficiencies

In "Factor Four" (Weizsäcker et al., 1996), an impressive number of examples is presented to support the message of the Factor Ten Club. These examples combine changes in thinking, systems, and technologies that lead to reductions in resource efficiency of a factor of four or more. All these examples are combinations of available technologies:

  • super windows (factor 4),

  • super refrigerators (factor 10),

  • user-oriented and least-cost power plant management (factor 4),

  • CD-ROM versus paper (factor 50),

  • water use in paper manufacturing (factor 40), and

  • marketing of low-transport products (factor 4 to 100).
The UNEP Industry and Environment Office has compiled concrete examples of cleaner production applied by companies in different regions of the world. They illustrate real achievements in waste and emission reduction and in raw material and energy use with factors ranging from 2 to 10. All examples given have an attractive payback time and were beneficial for the companies from various perspectives. They include:
  • enzymatic bleach cleanup in cotton dying versus rinsing (factor 2 in water use, factor 5 in energy use), Denmark;

  • waste generation in sugar milling and refining (factor 10 in wastewater, factor 2 in lead subacetate), the Philippines;

  • emission abatement in coking works (factor 10 in hydrogen cyanide, toluene, benzene, xylene, and hydrogen sulphide), Poland;

  • zero wastewater in metal finishing (factor 10 and more in water, chemicals, and sludge), Spain;

  • fewer toxic wastes in leather tanning (zero production of sulfides and foul smells, factor 4 in consumption of chromium sulfate), Tunisia;

  • treatment of wastewater in the rubber industry (factor 10 in BOD and COD reduction, factor 9 in water use), Malaysia;

  • automating the bicycle wheel plating process (factor 1.5 in wastewater reduction; factor 10 in chrome discharge), China.

UNEP. 1993. Cleaner Production Worldwide. UNEP Industry and Environment Office. Paris.

UNEP. 1994. Cleaner Production in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Region. UNEP Industry and Environment Office. Paris.

UNEP. 1995a. Cleaner Production in the Mediterranean Region. Ecomed, UNEP and Impressa Ambiente. Rome.

UNEP. 1995b. Cleaner Production Worldwide. Vol. II. UNEP Industry and Environment Office. Paris.

Weizsäcker, E.U. von, B. Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. 1996. "Factor Four: Doubling Wealth-Halving Resource Use," A Report to the Club of Rome. Wuppertal Institute. Wuppertal, Germany.

On a macro-economic level, resource productivity refers to the total quantity of resources consumed to provide services and goods such as housing, transport, medical care, higher education, and export products for a given number of people (or within certain geographical or political boundaries) for a certain period of time. A country's total resource productivity can be accounted for by adding all resource inputs generated within the borders and those that were imported, and then subtracting the resource inputs exported. These material intensity and flow accounts aim to quantify the efficiency of economic operations; to consider how much material and energy is used, by whom, and how it is distributed; and to establish global patterns in the origin and movement of materials and energy.

Currently several initiatives are under way to calculate the material intensity of production processes and the flows of materials within and between nations. Their goal is to draw attention to the wasteful use of resources and promote resource efficiency. Such accounts can highlight policy opportunities for increasing resource productivity and can provide a way to assess the ecological quality of products and services, expressed in resource intensity throughout life cycles. (See Box 3.5.)

Box 3.5.

Material Intensity and Flow Accounts

In Germany, the Wuppertal Institute, in co-operation with the German Federal Statistical Office, developed an overall material flow account that provides a physical mass balance-domestic extraction from the environment, domestic deposition and release to the environment, imports, and exports. The account includes elements such as water, abiotic (non-renewable) and biotic (renewable) raw materials, soil and its erosion, emissions into the atmosphere (such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulphur dioxide), and oxygen for combustion. The total material input indicator derived from these accounts can be regarded as a highly aggregated measure that relates pressures from the physical basis of the German economy to the global environment.

The analysis carried out in Germany found that the relative dependence on a material-intensive supply is greatest for the energy sector, the iron and steel industry, and the construction sector. The energy sector was also found to be responsible for a high level of direct extraction of domestic primary material. The construction sector was found to be the most material-intensive. As a result, these two industrial sectors in Germany will be primary targets for dematerialization policies, which aim at reducing both material and energy intensity.

Source: Wuppertal Institute. Personal communication. 1996.

Although these attempts to look at macro-economic performance in an alternative way are currently limited and anecdotal, they hold the promise of providing different insights in how society operates, thus opening new avenues of dealing with environmental management.

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