There is a lot of talk today about steps individuals can take to reduce their ecological footprint. When it comes to mitigating air pollution — including the contaminants which contribute to climate change — the power of the individual pales in comparison to the power of institutions and corporations.
Of the 190 million tons of CO2 equivalent produced in Australia by energy-generating activities in 2017, more than 25% can be traced to manufacturing, including metal fabrication. In the United States, more than half of all greenhouse gases come from electricity generation and direct industrial emissions.
Both countries consistently rank towards the top for their global contributions to sulfur oxide emissions and other pollutants in our air and water.
The World Health Organization estimates that 90% of human beings breathe polluted air each day, costing seven million lives each year. Poor air quality links to damage to the heart, lungs and brain.
Manufacturers substantially contribute to this problem. Now, the time has come to commit to reversing it. Here are some ways they can go about it:
1. Switch to renewable energy
The manufacturing industry — including the paper and concrete industries — burn substantial quantities of coal and fossil fuels to produce heat or generate electricity. Fossil fuels also release mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air, each of which has a detrimental effect on the environment, climate change and human health.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel, but its contribution to mercury and sulfur pollution is “negligible” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The UCS estimates that powering the equivalent of 10,000 homes with natural gas rather than coal would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 1,900 tons per year, sulfur dioxide emissions by 3,900 tons per year and particulate pollution by 5,200 tons per year.
However, manufacturers should look at renewables like wind and solar as the endgame. The UCS also observes that natural gas development sites contribute to air pollution through ozone, ozone precursors and particulates, all of which link to human health issues like cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems and even cancer.
2. Use wet scrubbers and other mitigation technologies
Industrial wet scrubbers are cost-effective and versatile devices that multiple industries can use to curb their toxic emissions — including carbon dioxide and CO2 equivalents that contribute to climate change.
Wet scrubbers achieved widespread popularity because they filter both particulate and gaseous contamination in a single step rather than two. Fossil fuels and nuclear power constitute 85% of U.S. energy production — both result in tremendous waste production. Chemical manufacturing, petroleum processing and metal fabrication are all known to contribute gaseous waste in the form of carbon dioxide, cadmium and hydrogen sulfide.
Wet scrubbers remove waste from gases using specialized liquids that force contaminants out of gas byproducts. Compared to fines for violating clean air rules, the cost to buy and maintain wet scrubbers is remarkably manageable.
Wet scrubbers are not the only mitigation technology available that can destroy pollutants before they enter the air. Here are some others in use by manufacturing companies today:
- Regenerative thermal oxidizers: RTOs use extreme heat to remove contaminants from factory byproducts. An advantage of RTOs is that, in many cases, they repurpose energy from the industrial operation itself to do their work.
- Catalytic oxidizers: Also called “catalytic incinerators,” this equipment uses a metal catalyst and high heat to oxidize volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) into water and carbon dioxide. They don’t require temperatures as high as RTOs.
- Rotary concentrator systems: Rotary concentrator systems remove and eliminate volatile organic compounds and other pollutants from airborne factory exhaust. They work by pushing air through a rotating drum, which forces contaminants out of the air and into a hydrophobic media, where an oxidizer then destroys them.
3. Switch to electric vehicles in the supply chain
According to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the rate of electric vehicle adoption in Australia lags behind that of other nations. This displays a missed opportunity, as electric vehicles (EVs) help companies achieve higher energy security, lower fuel and maintenance costs and slash their contribution to air pollution.
Whether they’re bound for Australia or elsewhere, the transportation of material goods from manufacturers to end-users is one of the most significant contributors to climate change and air pollution.
According to studies, transitioning more of the world’s vehicles from combustion to electric power — “no matter how the power is generated” — results in lower rates of ozone and particulate pollution.
As a reminder, stratospheric ozone is desirable. The ozone layer insulates the earth from harsh ultraviolet radiation. Ground-level ozone pollution, on the other hand, has links with lung diseases, asthma and other health problems, especially in the young and elderly.
In 2013, the Trucking Industry Council placed the average age of heavy-duty trucks in Australia at close to 14 years. Now is an ideal moment for manufacturers and their distributors and freight industry partners to choose a different way forward. Some major companies are already placing EV orders in the thousands or tens of thousands.
4. Choose cleaner, non-toxic raw materials
Many industries on earth use potentially toxic raw materials in their processes to one degree or another.
The coating and paint industries are prime examples. Traditional approaches to manufacturing paints and coatings release hazardous heavy metals into the air. Mixing operations are associated with volatile organic compounds and ground-level ozone. Processes like milling and grinding release particulate pollution into the air and surrounding environment.
The U.S. EPA recommends replacing coating mixtures containing mercury, lead and chromium with non-hazardous biocides. These provide similar protective and bacteria-killing properties without the same harmful effects on air quality and health as heavy metals.
Manufacturers specializing in fiberglass, plastic and resin production provide a similar case study. These processes typically involve the use of styrene. When styrene enters the air in its atomized form, it poses a risk to human kidney function and even causes effects like chronic fatigue, headache and depression.
Recommendations from the EPA to curb air pollution from fiberglass and plastic manufacturing include switching to low-styrene resins and gels, using ultraviolet-cured materials and switching to low-pressure spraying methods to reduce overspray and wasted material. These actions would concurrently decrease the amount of atomized styrene and other pollutants entering the air.
5. Use predictive analytics for more efficient enterprise planning
Poorly balancing supply and demand for a given product often leads to factories churning out goods even when they’re not required. In doing so, businesses contribute to air pollution when they don’t have to.
Moreover, producing more goods than necessary results in many of those products being discarded. In the United States, solid municipal waste is the third-largest source of methane emissions and a significant contributor to air pollution, including volatile organic compounds.
Deloitte has identified machine learning and predictive analytics as essential tools in enterprise resource planning, including balancing supply and demand for manufacturers. They note that, thanks to big data and better technologies for keeping manufacturing partners on the same page, planning supply chains and production schedules in the future could be close to an entirely automated process.
Predictive analytics can reduce air pollution from another source as well — the transportation of manufactured goods. The ability to mine historical and real-time data means manufacturers can better optimize their freight schedules.
Transportation planning using intelligent analytics results in better-optimized routes as well as lowered dependence on less-than truckloads. More full truckloads and fewer partial loads mean fewer vehicles on the road and less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
With each of these methods, manufacturers and their partners in the supply chain can make significant progress toward eliminating materials and practices that contribute to air pollution.
Most of these require time and financial investment, but cleaning our air is good for business. Lower rates of air pollution make for healthier economies and more productive workforces.
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Title image by Kateryna Babaieva.