Demystifying “Environmental Sustainability”

There has been much talk over the past few years about enviornmental sustainability. Everyone is talking about it. Even people with degrees in French Literature are talking about it! Conferences are held on environmental sustainability. There are hundreds of definitions of sustainability and yet no one seems to understand what it really means. So-called experts are coming up with “metrics” and “indices” as new ways to measure sustainability and none has universal acceptance.

Sustainability is the new environmental buzzword of this decade.  What exactly is it?

According to EPA, sustainability is based on a simple principle:  “Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations”.

What this definition says is that as we make our products, we should make sure that there is as little net negative impact on the environment as possible. A good example to illustrate this concept is to look at our savings account in the bank. If we have $1000 in the bank and its pays 3% interest a year, the sustainable way to manage this bank account would be to spend no more than $30 a year. On the other hand, if we were to draw down the principal amount by spending more than $30 a year, we would deplete the account over time and there will be nothing left for our children. It would not be a sustainable account.

Think of nature as one gigantic bank account. As we make our products, we need to make sure that the rate at which we take something away from nature is no faster than nature’s own rejuvenation rate. For example, if we discharge too much pollutants to a river, the river may not be able to assimilate the pollutants in time and the net results would be a depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water and fish kill. The river in this example is not being sustained and the practice of discharging pollutants into this river is not sustainable.

This concept of “sustainability” is not new at all. Regulatory agencies’ permitting programs have been taking sustainability into account for years. In fact, the entire premise behind permitting is sustainability. The amount of pollutant you are allowed to discharge into a stream under a permit is entirely dependent on the assimilative capacity of that stream. Your permit conditions demand that.  If there are too many sources of pollution going into a particular water body that is under stress, the Clean Water Act requires that a waste load allocation scheme be set up to regulate how many sources can discharge how much pollutants into that body of water.

On the air side, if we wish to build a new power plant in a non-attainment area (i.e. where the National Ambient Air Quality Standards are not being met at the time), the agency will require us to “offset” our new pollutant by removing more than the new amount from an existing source under the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review Program. For example, if we wish to emit 1000 tons of new soot into the atmosphere in Los Angeles, we would have to either purchase an existing plant that is currently emitting 1500 tons of soot and shut it down or purchase emission credit in the open market. That’s the Clean Air Act’s way of ensuring sustainability. You must remove from the existing inventory more than what you plan to emit.

If we plan to build our new power plant in a city where the air is clean (an attainment area), we would have to get a PSD (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) permit from EPA to demonstrate that our new power plant will not jeopardize the attainment status under the Clean Air Act. We will have to put in the most advanced pollution control equipment to do that and demonstrate through computer modeling that the new plant would not cause the area to be re-classified as non-attainment. That’s another example of sustainability.

The above examples also illustrate the two main approaches to environmental sustainability, namely, “waste minimization” and “pollution prevention”. These concepts have been around for years as well! Every manager knows that if he can find a way to make his products by generating less wastes and causing less pollution, he will save money in the long run.

Years ago, the canning industry converted from making three-piece cans with lead soldered side seams to making two-piece cans with water-based sealing compound for the same sustainability reasons. The water-based sealing compounds generates no hazardous wastes and the whole process causes a lot less pollution.

If you are doing a decent job in waste minimization and pollution prevention, you are well on your way to environmental sustainability. You don’t need any fancy three-dimensional charts or metrics to tell you that.

So the next time someone asks if you are practicing “environmental sustainability”, tell him about what you are doing in waste minimization and pollution prevention.

Or ask him: What else is new?

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4 responses to “Demystifying “Environmental Sustainability”

  1. crccoralreefcreator

    Great article and nice examples of sustainability !

  2. Seychelle Krygsman

    This article is great! It makes explaining sustainability a lot easier!

  3. It seems you leave out resource management. Toxifying a stream is one way of demonstrating unsustainable practice. Pumping ground water beyond recharge rates or employing logging practices that silt the stream also are unsustainable. I appreciate your non-alarmist approach… truly I do, but while the tenets of sustainability predate industrial society, all our ancient wisdom and modern technologies have moved only further from this lofty goal. It is difficult to balance this reality and the urgency it demands, with the understanding that the movement itself must be sustainable.

    • Anthony….I think you are viewing the word sustainable in the traditional sense. Anything bad is not sustainable. My whole point is that toxifying a stream can still be sustainable environmentally if it is managed properly. Read my example of a bank account. Withdrawing money from your bank account is sustainable if you do not exceed the interest it earns. Every man-made activity comes with some degree of toxicity and pollution. Even Mother Nature can be a big polluter. Ever seen a volcanic eruption? The trick is not to eliminate toxicity (you can’t) but to manage it in a true sustainable way. There are people who refer to sustainability as motherhood, apple pie, fair wage, world peace, population control and you name it. They are just wrong.

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