Industrial Pollution + Waste

There are countless abandoned factories in the old Eastern Germany. This one is in Guben, on the Polish border. Helga’s grandparents come from here. The textile industry fired by unlimited coal power started here in the mid 19th century. Polluting production and old technology persisted until the fall of the Berlin Wall. The communist model of enterprise proved unsustainable, and ultimately destructive to people and the planet. Factories and houses lie abandoned and the community disrupted as people have moved to more prosperous parts of Germany and beyond. Both in Communism and current manifestations of Capitalism its easy to destroy social and natural capital; much harder to rebuild. Sustainable enterprise creates the future before it comes to this.

The quintessential industrial pollution disaster is the 1984 toxic chemical explosion at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. This was followed 2 years later by the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Both disasters spread toxic waste far and wide and the repercussions for people and the planet are felt to this day, for they represent horrific disasters where the number of victims grows with time as children continue to be born with health problems related to the events. Both were smeared by disinformation and unwillingness to accept culpability or make adequate recompense. The issue of industrial pollution was popularised through the 2000 film Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts. The case of Anderson, et al v Pacific Gas & Electric involved contamination of drinking water by industrial pollutants and the resultant health effects on the neighboring community. In 1996 the case was settled at $333 million, then the largest settlement ever made in the US for a class action law suit. The dogged determination of Brockovich, an unqualified legal assistant, was instrumental in revealing the facts that won the case. She is now a prominent pollution activist and speaker. Often the victims of industrial pollution remain in distress, disinformation and denial of liability for years before their claims are reluctantly addressed. Sometimes they never are.

The effects of insipient pollution in many ways has more damaging impacts than the comparatively few major disasters that occur. Disasters are by definition self-evident and the cause and culpability usually self-evident. By contrast unobtrusive pollution finds its way into all aspects of the biosphere poisoning the planet’s potential every millimetre of the way. Civil Society, the courts and NGOs are all demanding greater accountability. Increasingly consumers are also seeking to anchor back pollution to its producers, including the take back of products containing noxious chemicals at the end of their useful life.

Sustainable Enterprises can avoid these risks by ensuring their quality and environmental management systems minimise risks, that polluting materials and contaminants are designed out of products, that emissions are cleaned or processes redesigned to avoid them, and that end of use recycling is appropriately managed. Sending industrial pollution to poor countries with little environmental protection for unsafe-guarded dumping, or ocean dumping pose extreme risks of litigation or adverse NGO and consumer reaction. End of life recycling in the third world where health and safety standards are insufficient to deal with the contaminants involved, is less likely to be tolerated in a connected world where the spotlight can be shone easily on the perpetrators.