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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







Technology & Production Systems


Pollution Control & Safe Disposal

Sandy Irvine & Alec Ponton

Pollution problems are intrinsic to the very process of energy and matter conversion. Technological pollution control simply cannot make pollutants 'go away'. All such devices can do is transform wastes, by changing them from one form, time, or place to another in the hope that they thereby generate less human or environmental damage.

Often there are resource costs necessary to accomplish these tasks, usually of more energy inputs into the process and sometimes of specific raw materials (e.g. limestone for desulphurisation). The manufacture of pollution control gadgetry also consumes resources and generates its own pollutants. It has been suggested, for example, that the making of catalytic converters for exhausts creates more pollution than their usage saves. Similarly, the incineration of hazardous substances has turned out to be a serious hazard in its own right.

The only way to stop these assaults on ourselves and our environment is to generate less pollution. Since so much pollution is inevitable, given the passage of energy and materials through the economy, we will only reduce it by lowering the quantities of resources we use. Schemes for depletion quotas, and raw material taxes on energy and other resources, are the best way to do this. In some circumstances, such as the use of nitrogen fertilisers, limits would have to be set by physical quotas. The reduction of resource 'inputs' into the economy obviously depends as well upon population control and the promotion of more frugal technologies.

Some forms of pollution are, however, so toxic in quality (some heavy metals, for example) or so devastating in impact (such as Chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer) that they require direct regulations on their use and disposal, enforced by independent and well-staffed agencies. The list of substances and processes deserving an immediate ban, such as DDT, the open incineration of hazardous chemicals, non-biodegradable plastic packaging, phosphate-containing detergents, would fill many pages. A number of them have been or are about to be banned in some parts of the world.

Recent measures in California (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act) to force manufacturers to make public the chemicals they use is an example to be followed and expanded. In the case of nuclear facilities, the only answer is to ban the entire industry. For all their limitations, many recycling programmes are worthy of encouragement, both to conserve resources and to limit pollution (see below for further discussion). So too are some 'technofixes' such as fluidised bed combustion as a measure against air pollution.

A particular focus on pollution issues should be the work place, where progress over occupational health and safety would pay dividends for workers, the general public and the environment. Three rights are important-the right to know relevant information, the right to participate in proper consultation and negotiation, and the right to refuse to work in hazardous conditions.

The breaking of health and safety regulations in the workplace and anti-pollution laws outside must be treated as crimes against society, which outrank many other offences now punished by harsh fines and imprisonment. Recent cases in the USA, in which criminal charges relating to pollution incidents have been brought against individuals within companies, point one way forward. Though government agencies could and should bring such actions, individuals and groups must be similarly empowered to challenge activities which threaten either themselves or society as a whole-as well as other species and environmental systems (which can hardly take legal action themselves!)


Connett, P. E. Municipal Waste Incineration: Wrong Question, Wrong Answer. The Ecologist, 24(1), 1994: 14-20.
Denison, R. & J. Ruston. Recycling & Incineration: Evaluating the Choices. Island Pr., 1990.
Department of Trade & Industry. Cutting Your Losses-A Further Guide to Waste Minimisation for Business. DTI, 1992.
Kenworthy, L., & E. Schaeffer. Citizen's Guide To Promoting Toxic Waste Reduction. Island Pr., 1990.
Mazmanian, D. & D. Morell. Beyond Superfailure: America's Toxic Policy for the 1990s. Westview Pr., 1992.
Postel, S. Defusing the Toxics Threat: Controlling Pesticides & Industrial Waste. Worldwatch Institute, 1989.
Ryder, R. 'Sustainable' Incineration and Death by Dioxin. The Ecologist, 27(4), 1997: 135-136.

* Used with permission of the authors.
See original at < http://www.realworld.u-net.com/EcoList.Technology.html >.

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