Bob Perciasepe’s remarks at the Pacific Northwest Pollution Resource Center





OCTOBER 28, 2015

Good morning. Thank you for that kind introduction and thanks for inviting me to the 24th annual conference for the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center. I want to congratulate and thank you for all of the great work you do: providing information and technical assistance to businesses that want to reduce their source pollution, catalyzing projects that bring people and resources together, and promoting pollution prevention as an essential element of sustainable development. Your organization has been at the forefront of a movement that is critical to an economically and environmentally sustainable future.

Just last month we celebrated a milestone in that movement – the 25th anniversary of the Pollution Prevention Act. In passing the Act, Congress declared: “it to be the national policy of the United States that pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source whenever feasible…”

Pollution prevention means thinking through what you’re trying to make or do beforehand so that you avoid environmental harm and you don’t have anything to clean up. It’s about trying to prevent the illness instead of just reacting to the symptoms of the disease.

When we started the modern era of environmental protection in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, we weren’t thinking a lot about preventing pollution. We were in crisis mode, dealing with air and water pollution and food contaminants that threatened our health and safety. Headlines were about Love Canal and the Cuyahoga River fire.

We were plugging the leaks, coping with the damage, and trying to limit our exposure.

Today, we know we can do better. By taking a pollution prevention mindset – the same way some doctors take a disease prevention approach – we can avoid costly and dangerous environmental catastrophes.

A Pollution Prevention Mindset

We saw the tide turning in the late 1980s with the first major international move to prevent rather than treat pollution: the Montreal Protocol. We knew we had a problem – a growing hole in the ozone layer that protects the Earth from harmful radiation. And we knew the cause – our use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, in aerosol sprays, refrigerants, and foam plastics. Rather than trying to limit the impact of CFCs, we transitioned away from them thanks to what has been called “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” Scientists expect the ozone layer will return to 1980 levels within about 50 years. Additionally, negotiations are now underway for the Montreal Protocol to expand to cover hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. They don’t deplete the ozone layer, but they’re a potent greenhouse gas.

A big example of this new mindset in the United States was the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. The act focused industry, government, and public attention on reducing pollution by changing how we used raw materials, produced goods, and operated overall. This was a profound change from the old “end-of-pipe” approach emphasizing treating waste after it was produced, and which sometimes just shifted waste from one part of the environment to another.

The act was a precursor to another movement called green chemistry that aimed to reduce toxic substances at the start by building into the design and production process the goal of using less polluting, toxic, or hazardous materials. Green chemistry looks at the energy and raw materials needed for production. As a result, we’ve seen everything from non-toxic cleaning products to trans-fat-free foods.

More recently, we can look at efforts to address climate change as an example of pollution prevention. We’re trying to make our sources of power cleaner so that they don’t emit greenhouse gases in the first place. Look at the recent growth of wind and solar. Over the past 15 years, wind power capacity in the U.S. has grown about 24 percent annually. Over that same timespan, solar capacity has grown 69 percent annually. And as deployment goes up, prices come down. We’re also trying to be more efficient with the energy we produce. As the saying goes, the greenest kilowatt hour is the one that’s never used.

Going forward, I see five key areas where we need to consistently extend a pollution prevention approach: greenhouse gases, urban water pollution, ground-level ozone, e-waste, and food waste. Furthermore, I see five major institutions that are providing or will provide the leadership we need to address these issues in an integrated way: states, cities, businesses, universities, and professional sports.

Five Key Areas

First, we need to reduce, and ideally prevent, greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. We’re already experiencing the impacts of climate change: rising sea levels; more frequent and intense heat waves; and more severe droughts, wildfires and downpours. These impacts have real costs. Last year in the United States, we had eight extreme weather events. Each one topped $1 billion in losses.

The power and transportation sectors are responsible for nearly three-quarters of U.S. carbon emissions, so that’s where we must start. The Clean Power Plan has the potential to unleash a wave of innovation, especially if states look to leverage market-based approaches to prevent greenhouse gas emissions by promoting clean power and energy efficiency. On the transportation front, our gasoline-powered cars are more efficient than ever. Although plug-in electric vehicles make up less than 1 percent of total U.S. vehicle sales, new technology, lower costs and new commitments by automakers could change this. For example, Toyota recently announced a goal of reducing average emissions 90 percent by 2050 by selling hybrids and zero-emission fuel cell vehicles.

Next, we need to get a handle on urban water pollution if we want to keep our rivers, streams and waterways safe and drinkable. In a natural environment, half of the rainfall is absorbed into the ground. But in a paved environment where three-quarters of the surface area is impervious, more than half of the water runs off – sending pollutants from pet waste to motor oil into waterways where we swim, fish and collect drinking water. We used to focus on traditional infrastructure like pipes and storage basins. But more and more, communities are turning to green tools like storm water planters, rain gardens, green roofs and porous pavement to help filter pollutants from the water and slow it down. We can also prevent polluted runoff by using fertilizers sparingly and disposing of chemicals and motor oil properly.

Ground-level ozone is another threat to human health that we can prevent.

Ground-level ozone is created when pollution from cars, factories, power plants and other sources chemically react with sunlight. Warmer temperatures, which we’ll see more with climate change, only make it worse. Ozone is contributing to more “Code Red” air quality days when the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses have to stay inside because it’s hard to breathe. EPA is proposing a stronger standard for ground-level ozone that should help promote the development of innovative technology such as more efficient diesel trucks, ships and electric-powered locomotives. Cleaner fuels for our cars and our power plants can also help.

We are blessed with technology that lets us find out just about anything and communicate with anyone in an instant. But this boon has a dark side, the fourth problem: e-waste. The world produces about 50 million tons of e-waste each year, and that will grow dramatically in the coming years. Although e-waste only represents 2 percent of the trash in American landfills, it accounts for 70 percent of toxic waste being released into the air, water and soil. Right now only about 20 percent of e-waste is recycled. Recycling more would conserve natural resources, reduce greenhouse gases, and protect our health and environment.

Finally, every time we toss food scraps in the trash we’re not only wasting food, we’re wasting the resources that went into producing, transporting, and preparing that food. According to the United Nations, one third of all food produced worldwide is wasted. We could feed 2 billion people with that food. In the U.S. it’s even worse: About 40 percent of food goes to waste, with the vast majority of it ending up in a landfill. EPA estimates food waste is now the most abundant material in landfills, where it contributes to methane gas emissions. There are easy and pragmatic ways to reduce food waste. It starts with being a smarter consumer and only buying what you need. We can also be smarter about preserving food longer and composting food scraps to create a rich soil for planting.

Five key institutions

People are tackling these five issues I outlined from a pollution prevention mindset. And the five entities I see leading the way are: states, cities, businesses, universities, and professional sports. These institutions can develop integrated efforts around these issues and provide examples of success for others to follow.

States have long been our incubators for innovative policy. They’ve been the source of most of our major national environmental regulations protecting our air and water. More recently we’re seeing states encourage clean energy and energy efficiency and foster investment in clean technologies, and the Clean Power Plan will further encourage this. The plan’s flexibility will allow states to take advantage of market-based approaches that stimulate business innovation and encourage businesses to find the least-cost path to emissions reductions.

Already 10 states – home to more than a quarter of the U.S. population — have put a price on carbon. California’s cap-and-trade program is cutting carbon emissions while the state has one of the nation’s best job growth rates. The nine states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast have cut carbon emissions from power plants 40 percent since 2005. C2ES is working with states to explore approaches such as common definitions and measurement and verification processes so companies could be in a position to trade within and across borders.

Secondly, vital, sustainable, cities can serve as models for the rest of the country. For example, in Philadelphia, an urban water pollution prevention program is focusing on green tools to meet Clean Water Act standards. But it has had a myriad of environmental, social, and economic co-benefits such as higher property values, beautified neighborhoods, a reduced urban heat island effect, and more natural habitats. It has also saved the city an estimated $5.6 billion.

Cities are also leading the way in energy efficiency. They’re focusing on buildings, which waste an average of 30 percent of the energy they consume. A lot of building owners and managers aren’t even aware of this waste. Some cities are collecting and sharing energy usage data to focus attention on the issue and create a market for efficient buildings. A program in New York City has resulted in $260 million in energy savings. By using technology like networked devices, sensors and smart grids, we can cut waste, and measure and verify the energy savings.

Getting the business community involved is also crucial, and we see companies acting on multiple fronts. At the White House this month, companies pledged to take voluntary action to limit or eliminate HFCs that are contributing to global warming. For example, Coca Cola has installed 1.5 million HFC-free cooler units in its global network. As of last week, a total of 81 companies had joined the White House American Business Act on Climate Pledge. These and other companies have committed to reduce emissions, use renewable energy, and work with communities on strengthening resilience to climate impacts. Just last week, EPA again named Microsoft Green Power Partner of the Year for its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint through renewable energy and efficiency. And 14 companies with a combined $1 trillion in revenue have signed a statement C2ES organized to support an international climate agreement this December in Paris.

C2ES works with EPA and The Climate Registry to sponsor the Climate Leadership Awards, which recognize corporate, organizational, and individual leadership in response to climate change. Those awards are given out at an annual conference that will be right here in Seattle in March, and I hope to see many of you there.

Many universities are taking the lead in being green. Seattle University gives leftover cooking oil to a local bio-diesel manufacturer. It has an on-site facility that composts food waste to use in planting beds. The University of Washington has an Electronic Media Recycling Program for students and faculty to drop off unwanted printer cartridges, batteries, and cellphones. UC Irvine received a Climate Leadership Award for its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has been retrofitting lighting, heating and air conditioning, and campus lab operations to save energy. And it uses an efficient combined heat and power plant for electricity and hot water. UC Irvine also has a goal of diverting 95 percent of its solid waste from landfills by recycling, educating students on minimizing food waste, and providing reusable water bottles and water-filling stations.

Finally, we also see major sports leagues and teams, many of them through the Green Sports Alliance, taking action to prevent waste and produce clean energy. The Seattle Mariners recycled or composted more than 85 percent of all waste generated at Safeco Field last year. Nearly everything is recyclable or compostable. At Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles, NRG has built the largest solar array in the area with more than 11,000 solar panels. Combined annual solar and wind production at the field is more than four times the power consumed during a season of home games.

People say change takes time. And that’s true. But the pace of change is accelerating.

It took 45 years for half of American households to have a landline telephone. It only took seven years for the cell phone to achieve the same feat. Transitioning to a clean energy and clean transportation future and reducing or eliminating food waste and e-waste will take time. But we don’t have time to waste.

PPRC and C2ES have a core belief in common – that a healthy environment and strong economy work hand in hand. Energy efficiency and clean energy are some of the biggest economic opportunities of our time. Another thing PPRC and C2ES have in common is we both believe in a collaborative approach. We recently launched a Solutions Forum initiative to work with businesses, states, and cities to harness the power of the markets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, develop innovative financing for clean energy and efficiency, and strengthen our resilience to climate impacts.

A pollution prevention mindset is essential to make progress in addressing the causes of climate change and in transitioning to a clean energy and less wasteful society. If we commit to sustainability and leverage technology to help, we can all live on a planet with clean air and water and access to energy and economic opportunity.

We have some real momentum going now. Let’s make the most of it.