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About Waste Minimization

The Environmental Protection Agency's Waste Minimization Program seeks to reduce or eliminate waste in manufacturing in the United States. To do this, we will promote the concept of sustainability. We will encourage and recognize industries who are already moving toward sustainable production and seek an opportunity to introduce it to other industries who have not yet embraced this concept. Many definitions of sustainability or sustainable production exist but most say that it is the process of economic development to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We believe that a successful manufacturing future must be dedicated to the sustainable use of resources.

A sustainable manufacturing culture focuses on minimizing waste. To that end, our efforts will be directed at showing that waste is not always the price of doing business and that waste is not the inevitable outcome of production and consumption. Waste is lost resource and should be a manufacturing cost variable that must be optimized with both direct and societal costs in mind. Sustainable production together with sustainable consumption should be the goal of all sectors of our society.

To progress toward this goal, our Waste Minimization Program is working on and promoting the use of advanced production and management tools including lean manufacturing, chemical management services, greening the supply chain, and waste-to-energy technologies.

Priority Chemicals Reduction is the Highest Priority

Programs that target overall waste reduction are vital to achieving sustainability. But we also must be focused on reducing the impacts of wastes that are creating the most pressing environmental threats today. The Waste Minimization Program is placing the greatest emphasis on the reduction of chemicals in wastes (as well as products) that, due to their chemical properties, can be harmful to human health and the environment over long periods of time if released to the environment. Existing releases of these chemicals often linger in some form for decades, repeatedly cycling among land, water, and air, being carried airborne across state and national borders, depositing on soils and water bodies, settling in sediments, and being consumed by and stored in fat reserves of living organisms. Continued use of these chemicals increases these unwelcome global reservoirs.

Our regulatory programs have been very effective tools in controlling industrial and municipal sources of these chemicals. However, data from the Toxics Release Inventory shows millions of pounds of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals continue to be released.

Therefore, a clear priority of our waste minimization program is the reduction of chemicals that have the properties of persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity. These priority chemicals should be reduced or eliminated wherever possible to lower the potential long term effects of the release of these chemicals via waste generation. If they cannot be eliminated, they should be contained within a use-reuse cycle wherever possible to eliminate their release.

EPA has identified 31 chemicals that, through these properties, are considered priority chemicals and should be the focus of waste minimization programs. This website lists the 31 priority chemicals and provides information on their properties. In the future we may add more chemicals that, because of these properties or others yet to be identified, have been established to be among the most important environmental threats that EPA needs to address.

Potential for Release to the Environment is High

These chemicals can be released to the environment in air emissions, wastewater discharges, or disposal of industrial wastes on the land. However, less obvious releases occur from the disposal of consumer products containing one or more of the 31 chemicals. Examples include electronic devices that have small amounts of lead solder and mercury thermometers.

Any consumer throwing one of these products away can be unwittingly contributing to the potential release of the chemical because once the discarded product enters the municipal waste stream, it winds up either in a landfill or an incinerator. If it winds up in a municipal landfill, the chemical can leach out of the product into the liquid at the bottom of the landfill and potentially be released to ground water or surface water. If the discarded product is incinerated, an amount of the chemical can be emitted as an air pollutant and deposited wherever the wind carries it. Some of the pollutants also can contaminate ash that must be disposed, again creating potential groundwater contamination risks. Even very small amounts of these chemicals can build up in the environment over time.

To address these potential risks, OSW's waste minimization program is focused not only on materials that are traditionally considered wastes (such as industrial residues or trash) but also on products and product intermediates that contain priority chemicals and could represent a potential vector for release. An estimated 90% of these chemicals are leaving factories in consumer and industrial products. Once that happens, it is inevitable that some percentage of those chemicals will wind up in municipal or industrial waste and be released to the environment through leaching or incineration.

What EPA's Waste Minimization Program Seeks

Our overall goals include the following:

1.  

Complete elimination of, or substitution for, priority chemicals, wherever possible;

2.  

Minimizing the amount of priority chemicals used whenever elimination or substitution is not possible;

3.  

Maximizing recycling whenever elimination, substitution, or minimization is not possible, creating closed loop materials management systems that eliminate or constrict release pathways;

4.  

Promoting cradle-to-cradle waste management instead of cradle-to-grave waste management;

5.  

Increase cooperative efforts between EPA, States, and the regulated community through partnership programs.

Why is a Focus on Waste Minimization Desirable?
Waste minimization often makes good economic and business sense. Source reduction and/or environmentally sound recycling, reuse, and reclamation technologies have helped many companies reduce:

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The quantity and toxicity of hazardous and solid waste generation;

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Raw material and product losses;

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Raw material purchase costs;

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Waste management recordkeeping and paperwork burden;

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Waste management costs;

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Workplace accidents and worker exposure;

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Compliance violations; and

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Environmental liability.

At the same time, waste minimization can improve:

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Production efficiency; 

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Profits;

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Good community relations;

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Employee participation morale;

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Product quality; and

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Overall environmental performance.

Releases of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals have a detrimental impact on human health and the environment. However, in economic terms, it is very difficult to quantify such impacts. What is the value of a contaminant free ecosystem? What are the true costs to society of toxicants that eventually find their way into the tissues of plants, animals, and people? It is hard to provide answers to these questions in terms of direct costs and benefits. Yet there are hidden costs to contamination and the fact that we have difficulty showing them in exact terms should not negate concern about them or interfere with the goal of reducing such costs through minimization programs. We believe there are economic benefits in reducing the presence of priority chemicals that are real but are also beyond our ability to quantify using current economic impact models. The reduction of priority chemicals does have an overall economic benefit beyond the costs of direct waste generation and disposal that should also be considered when investing in waste minimization.

Some waste minimization successes provide immediate or short term payback, while others may pay back over several years. The National Waste Minimization Program encourages industry and business to invest in waste minimization.

The National Partnership for Environmental Priorities (NPEP)
Much of this web site is dedicated to promoting our principal vehicle for waste minimization: NPEP. This voluntary program is one way industry and business can participate in the increasing attention to waste minimization and its contribution to a sustainable future. It is described throughout this site.

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