Demystifying Environmental Sustainability

Jul 7th, 2012 | By | Category: Sustainability

There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about environmental sustainability. Conferences are held on environmental sustainability, and everyone is talking about it. 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, but none of these measures has universal acceptance.

Sustainability is the environmental buzzword of this decade.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sustainability is based on a simple principle:

Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, 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 of this concept can be found in our personal savings account. If we have $1,000 in the bank and its pays 3 percent interest a year, the sustainable way to manage this bank account would be to spend no more than $30 a year. This will preserve the principal. 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 would be nothing left for our children. It would not be a sustainable practice.

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 pollution to a river, the river may not be able to assimilate the pollutants, which could possibly deplete dissolved oxygen in the water and cause a fish kill. The river in this example is not being sustained, and the practice of discharging pollutants into this river is not sustainable.


Sustainability and Permitting

This concept of sustainability is not new at all. Regulatory agencies’ permitting programs have been taking sustainability into account for years. In Stephen Myers’ EHS Journal article, Environmental Risk Management: A Critical Driver of Sustainability, the author refers to environmental risk mitigation plans that reduce uncertainty and risk by generally following an “eliminate, manage, or transfer” hierarchy.

This is exactly what a permit writer does.

In fact, sustainability is the entire premise behind permitting. The amount of pollutants that 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 U.S. Clean Water Act requires that a waste load allocation scheme be set up to regulate the number of sources that can discharge how much pollution into that body of water. In other words, you eliminate the pollution, manage it, or transfer it.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 also requires the governor of each state to develop water quality standards to protect existing designated beneficial uses and prevent degradation of the nation’s navigable waters. That is sustainability in its purest form!

On the air side, if we wish to build a new power plant in a non-attainment area (i.e. an area where the U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards are not being met), the U.S. Clean Air Act’s New Source Review Program requires us to offset our emissions by removing a quantity of pollution that exceeds our expected impact. For example, if we wish to emit 1,000 tons of new soot into the atmosphere in Los Angeles, we would have to either purchase an existing plant that is currently emitting 1,500 tons of soot and shut it down or purchase emission credits in the open market. That’s the Clean Air Act’s way of ensuring sustainability. You must remove from the existing inventory more pollutants than you are planning 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 Prevention of Significant Deterioration permit from EPA to demonstrate that our new power plant will not jeopardize the area’s 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 will not cause the area to be re-classified as a non-attainment area. That’s another example of sustainability.


Waste Minimization and Pollution Prevention

The above examples also illustrate the two main pillars of 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 while generating less waste and causing less pollution, he will save money in the long run.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 was a classic failure in pollution prevention on a massive scale. If the oil industry had spent a fraction of the billions of dollars that it spent perfecting deep sea drilling technology on pollution prevention, that oil spill might not have happened. Also, the oil spill was not an enterprise ending event as suggested in Myers’ article. BP will survive.

Years ago, for the same sustainability reasons, the canning industry converted from making three-piece cans with lead-soldered side seams to making two-piece cans with water-based sealing compounds. The water-based sealing compounds do not generate hazardous waste, and the whole process causes a lot less pollution and presents fewer environmental health risks to consumers than the lead-solder process. That change was made many years ago.

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. Nor do you need a Sustainability Officer to tell you that either.

So the next time someone asks if you are practicing “environmental sustainability,” tell him about your efforts to minimize waste, prevent pollution, and meet your permit conditions.

Or ask him: What else is new?


About the Author

Norman Wei is an environmental consultant with more than 35 years of experience as a corporate manager and consultant. His company, Environmental Management and Training, LLC., provides compliance training seminars throughout the United States. His seminar schedule can be found at

Photograph: Kiwi on Kiwi by Zsuzsanna Kilian, Budapest, Hungary.

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One Comment to “Demystifying Environmental Sustainability”

  1. […] consensus about the definition of this term.  I recently read anarticle in EHS Journal entitled “Demystifying Sustainability.”  In this article Norman Wei  argues that sustainability can be reduced to pollution […]

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