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Going green: Zero emission across different industries

Posted: 17 Jul 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Suresh Lulla? Qimpro? spotlight? green engineering? design for environment?

Concern for environmental damage caused by industries' pollution has reached fever pitch globally. Proactive waste management systems practiced today are still in the "end-of-the-pipe" phase. They need to move beyond recycling to work at minimizing waste generation. This can be done by revisiting the entire production processes of different industries. Worldwide, companies are waking up to the fact that the only sustainable path to the future is the observance of the zero emissions doctrine.

As a new paradigm, zero waste has to be embraced with a near religious zeal that goes beyond recycling waste. At the basic level, it would mean that the manufacturer takes back some part of the product for reuse.

The significant barriers to zero-waste drive are evident. If there was resistance to setting up effluent treatment plants in the early 1990s, radical shifts in today's production process are bound to face stronger resistance. The only answer to all this is that polluting industries are inefficient, as research will show. These industries have a short lease on life if they continue down this path. Consumers are already bearing the costs of pollution; they just might be willing to share the price of protection. Governments could subsidize this, but at a cost to the company in terms of higher taxes. And most of all, zero emission would allow companies the opportunity to save costs in the long term.

Several companies worldwide are embracing the zero waste doctrine. This doctrine is embedded in the understanding that there are serious limits to available resources. The ecosystem simply cannot cope with this onslaught. There is a paradigm shift from the "end-of-the-pipe" approach to "cleaner production." While the "reduce, recycle, reuse" approach worked well, the move is to revisit the entire production process. Another daunting fact is that modifying one production process will not minimize waste generation.

Zero emission is the first step to finding uses for waste in other industries. Hence, a virtual map of the structures of all the industries and the different ecosystems needs to be developed.

Public opinion has been turning green. The majority thinks that companies must take the onus and adhere to better pollution control standards. This began with a gentle nudge to the companies to conform to the new norms. However, this nudge comes to shove when calamities happen. As people become more aware of their environment, it has become more difficult for companies to strike a green stance without substantial evidence.

For instance, the ad campaign by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers that showed cars pollute less today than they did a few decades ago was strongly opposed. The Union of Concerned Scientists responded and pointed out that an average car today releases more environmentally damaging emissions to the atmosphere than cars did 20 years ago.

Auto industry's efforts
Today, the automotive industry has been intensifying research efforts to create cars that pollute less. This includes cars using biogas, solar energy, air, alcohol and liquid nitrogen. Hybrid and flexible fuel cars are the less polluting vehicles available in the market today.

General Motors has been developing a hydrogen-powered vehicle that is economically feasible. The company has been experimenting with fuel-cell technology for many years with Toyota. Fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with water as the only by-product.

This technology is considered far more environmentally friendly than the currently popular hybrid gas-electric engine. The company expects hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to enter the market around 2025 and power 30 percent of the global stock of vehicles by 2050. Expected oil savings would be to the tune of 13 percent of global oil demand and 5 percent of the global energy demand.

In India, Tata Motors is a pioneer. The company worked on emission control engines for its vehicles even before it became mandatory. In its joint venture with Cummins, the company worked on emission-control technology. The company's effluent treatment plants also helped in water conservation. Going beyond its own industry, Telco is also making great strides in working with its fuel supply partners to deliver better quality. Research showed that cleaner fuel can reduce emissions by up to 25 percent.

Zero waste
Meanwhile, industries dealing with chemical waste have embraced the philosophy of waste minimization. This entails reducing the volume and toxicity of a material. These industries have realized its many benefits, which include reduced costs with disposal and liabilities, and improved working conditions for their employees.

For instance, Tata Chemicals has waste minimization as the core of its environment-protection program. Its plant at Babrala in Uttar Pradesh is not only India's most energy-efficient fertilizer plant, but also the lowest ejector of effluents per unit of product.

Sponge iron manufacturing is another polluting industry. But Tata Sponge Iron has been working to minimize and treat effluents. Both its kilns are equipped with required pollution control equipment. Moreover, a mobile vacuum van cleans the dust generated by loaded vehicles. Waste such as residual sludge is dumped in a yard covered with soil where grass and other plants are grown. The fine ash generated in its power plant is converted into strong and useful bricks at a brick plant, another example of how the company has used the zero emissions approach to create new industries, products and jobs upstream.

Service industries are no less polluting. The hotel industry in India has taken several initiatives to manage solid waste. The industry converts waste into usable by-products to be sold. For example, lemon peel can be converted to dried powder and sold to beauty parlors for facials.

Another service provider, the healthcare sector, has greater issues to address. While nearly 80 percent is general waste, the remaining 20 percent is hazardous material that could be radioactive, toxic or may cause infection. Current waste management techniques like land filling or incineration may not be of help; alternatives include autoclaving, microwaving and chemical treatment.

- Suresh Lulla
Managing Director, Qimpro Consultants

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