Corporate obstacles to pollution prevention case study

Case Study: Corporate Obstacles to Pollution Prevention

Peter Cebon


If pollution prevention is such a great thing, why doesn’t it just happen?  Plenty of case studies show it is a “win-win-win” alternative, benefiting the corporation, the community, and the countryside.  Yet it took 10 years for government to take such an obvious idea seriously, and another five to create a semblance if regulatory interest.  On the corporate side, very little happened before publication of the first Toxic Release Inventory in 1989 put public pressure on companies.  Not all companies found pollution prevention cheap or easy.


Pollution prevention is a complex subject ranging from small changes in operating technique to massive, research-driven endeavors to create new products and processes.  To keep things manageable, let’s focus here on one type of pollution prevention: incremental changes in existing technology.  In this context, incremental changes means the substitution of one or two steps in a production process; it may also mean changes in relationships between production steps.  Examples might include changes in a washing step, or redesigning the process to eliminate the need for washing altogether.  Eliminating chlorofluorocarbons and saving energy by replacing a refrigeration process with a heat exchanger that can exploit waste cooling from another part of the process would likewise be incremental change.


For these incremental changes, three decision-making stages are critical: identifying a pollution prevention opportunity, finding a solution appropriate to that opportunity, and implementing that solution.  It will be useful to examine how three important aspects of an organization-its culture, its ability to process information, and its politics-can affect these three stages.  The discussion should demonstrate the importance of thinking of pollution prevention as a social, rather than simply a technical, activity.


What makes pollution prevention difficult in practice?  The question can best be answered by first considering a second question, How is pollution prevention different from end-of-pipe emissions control?  A key difference between the two is that pollution prevention opportunities are embedded deep within the plant and are tied to very specific physical locations.  To determine whether a particular solution is feasible, people need a really intimate understanding of the way the plant works.  This kind of understanding doesn’t come for design drawings but from the uses and working idiosyncrasies of the individual pieces of equipment.


Emissions control devices, on the other hand, are physically quite separate from the rest of the production process.  All that’s necessary to understand them is the composition of the material coming out the pipe.  Because that tends to be the same from one plant to another, the solutions can be relatively independent of the process.  One example: Despite different makes and ages of conventional boilers, different control systems, different histories, and different operating strategies, a scrubber is always a viable emissions control strategy for high-sulfur, coal-fired power stations.


A brief digression: In Monty Python’s Flying Circus, an accountant tells us why his job is not boring.  He recounts, in excruciating detail, the many “not at all boring” things that happen in his day.  But why is this funny?  Because it plays on a common stenotype that accountants are very boring people who find exciting exactly those routine details of daily life the rest of us dismiss as ordinary.  For the stereotype to resemble reality, one of two things must be happening: Either people who choose to be accountants bore us, or the profession socializes new members to think and act in a way the rest of us find boring.


Organizational culture is the same.  Organizations tend to recruit people who think in a way compatible with the organization’s view of the world, or else socialize them to think that way.  They train, reward and punish employees to reinforce the organization’s beliefs, and they allocate resources in accordance with those beliefs.


Now suppose an organization makes a cultural assumption that technical expertise is the only really valid form of knowledge and, therefore, that knowledge built from hands-on experience has very little value outside of day-to-day operations.  From what we said above, people in such a company are likely to make at least two kinds of errors.  First, engineers who are reasonably-but not intimately-familiar with the process may conclude that there are no preventive opportunities because they can’t see them.  Second, the company may send in a “SWAT” team of technical experts to ferret out opportunities comparable to those described in many case studies.  Not surprisingly, the team doesn’t find many and concludes the opportunities don’t exist.


Other important cultural beliefs also affect companies’ prevention behavior regarding pollution prevention.  Consider the way people conceptualize the production process.  Do they think of it in terms of technology or people?  How do they see their jobs and the jobs of others?  Do they look for opportunities to improve things or wait for things to go wrong?  Finally, do they see unusual events as problems to be solved or opportunities to get even deeper insight into the way things work?


Pollution prevention presents a difficult information processing problem because it requires people to understand more than the intimate details of the production process; they must also understand the technical possibilities.  Such specialized information is generally carried into the organization by technical specialists or vendors.  Such information is, for the most part, accessible only to people with the skills and communications link to get and understand it.


Pollution prevention solutions, then, require a nexus between two very dissimilar types of information: contextual and technical.  The organizational problem lies in bringing the two together.  This is notoriously difficult because they tend to be held by different actors in the organizational cast.  We saw above that process engineers and “SWAT” teams are unlikely to find opportunities and solutions.  Let’s look at one last player, the environmental manager.  Environmental managers, an obvious choice, are generally responsible for helping a firm comply with the law.  While their work may expose them to many pollution prevention solutions, they often have trouble getting access to production areas.  People in production often perceive them as “the compliance police.”  Also, most of their work-applying for permits, running treatment plants, reporting spills, and filling out waste manifests-doesn’t require intimate process knowledge.


Instead of looking to individuals, we might think in combinations.  The production operators-the people who turn the knobs and run the process-and production engineers-the people who help solve technical problems and design and implement changes in the production technology-could work together to find solutions.  While the operators know exactly where the possibilities are, they rarely have the skills to realize them or knowledge of the smorgasbord of available solutions.  Together with the production engineers, however, they have all the information.  And sometimes, the production engineers have both good enough relationships with operators to find the problems and the skills and contacts to get the technical information to determine the solutions.


Suppose then, that a pollution prevention manager wants to get engineers and operators working together.  This can be intensely political because of competition from numerous other managers.  Production engineers and operators generally report to production supervision, and most of their time is taken up with immediate production issues.  The engineers must understand and remedy the day-to-day crises, ensure the product is up to standard, deal with the latest spill, make sure people work safely, and do a myriad of other jobs.  Operators spend most of their time actually running the plant.  The pollution prevention manager competes for their remaining time along with safety, diversity, energy, quality, and training managers.  All these managers have top management’s endorsement, but that generally amounts to permission to compete, not succeed.


That is not the end of the politics.  The pollution prevention manager’s solution requires the engineers and operators to work together.  For that to happen, both groups must be amenable.  In some chemical plants I’ve studied, the engineers have been young, they have lacked interpersonal skills to solicit and obtain good help from operators, and they have not fully appreciated the operators’ skills.  The operators, on the other hand, have been older and not necessarily forthcoming with the latest know-it-all engineer breezing through the plant on a three-year rotation looking for career enhancing ideas.


Even when pollution prevention solutions are identified, resources such as capital and people are allocated by intensely political processes.  Largely because pollution prevention projects are so often deeply embedded in the technology of the plant, assessing the return on a pollution prevention investment may be difficult…This is important because in many companies discretionary capital is scarce and money for new projects is hard to come by.  Unless the true costs and potential profitability of prevention options can be properly assessed, they are at a disadvantage in competition with other projects for discretionary company resources.


In sum, rather than being simple, as many case studies might have us believe, pollution prevention is often quite difficult to put into practice.  As discussed, pollution prevention can be hampered by at least three realities of organizational life: The cultures of the organizations can effectively limit their perspectives; in many organizations, it is difficult to get the right information to the right people at the right time; and many aspects of organizational life are highly political.  These realities, among others, inhibit organizations’ abilities to carry out the three basic stages of decision making-identifying preventive opportunities, identifying specific solutions, and implementing those solutions.


These barriers are not insurmountable.  There are many encouraging case studies.  A number of companies have managed to overcome existing barriers and find cost-effective prevention solutions to their environmental problems.


The author presents many issues that hinder the implementation of pollution prevention solutions.  Use the format outlined in “Writing the Case Analysis” to address these problems and recommend solutions for overcoming these issues and integrating pollution prevention into the environmental management system.




Writing the Case Analysis



Begin the paper with an overview of the situation as described in the reading.  Provide sufficient detail such that someone who has not read the case could understand what is going on.


A thorough written analysis should include, but not necessarily be limited to, the following:


1) A clear statement of the problem(s).


2) A thorough analysis of the pertinent stakeholders and of the issues and the ways these combine to create the problem(s).  Address the issues in the questions that follow the case if included.


3) One or more suggested solutions, with clear explanations of the strengths and weaknesses of each solution and with each solution supported.


4) An explanation of how the solution(s) can be implemented (by whom, etc.) and the problems that might be encountered with the implementation.


Avoid “might be” scenarios.  Unless such material can be solidly and logically derived from the existing case material, it has no place in the written case analysis.



The quality of the written analysis will be judged not only on the solutions provided but also on how well the analyzer has supported his or her arguments with the use of case material, theory, and solid critical thinking.  No statement should be included in a case analysis that is not thoroughly supported.

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