The Pollution Prevention (P2) Act, passed 30 years ago, represented a paradigm shift in our nation’s approach to solving pollution problems. In clear terms, the Act called for industry, government, and the public to look upstream in manufacturing processes – to prevent sources of pollution rather than use end-of-pipe reduction or clean-up strategies.
The undeniable success of both private and state prevention programs facilitated a national embrace of two goals previously seen as incompatible: environmental quality and economic productivity. A series of 1980s federal reports on waste reduction – both from the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – recognized how those two goals could be, and should be, accomplished together. A 1987 OTA report, for example, stated, “[This] study shows how the competitiveness of American industry and environmental protection can be improved by devoting more resources to waste reduction and thus quickly reducing the costs of pollution control.”
The Pollution Prevention Act went one step further; it placed prevention firmly at the top of the waste management pyramid. The only strategy better than reduction, the Act suggests, is to prevent waste in the first place. In a 1993 Public Policy Statement, EPA Administrator Carol Browner explained the shift toward valuing prevention:
“When EPA was created in the early 1970’s, our work had to focus first on controlling and cleaning up the most immediate problems. Those efforts have yielded major reductions in pollution in which we should all take pride. Over time, however, we have learned that traditional ‘end-of-pipe’ approaches not only can be expensive and less than fully effective, but sometimes transfer pollution from one medium to another … Pollution prevention has the exciting potential for both protecting the environment and strengthening economic growth through more efficient manufacturing and raw material use.”
Instead of commanding reductions, the Pollution Prevention Act aimed to help businesses assess their own pollution problems and be active participants in solving problems.