Green Engineering and Management at US EPA: Present and Future


Barbara Karn, PhD; US Environmental Protection Agency; Office of Research & Development


NATO Advanced Research Workshop “Green Engineering and Management Methods and Tools for Central and Eastern Europe”

Budapest, Hungary   May 25, 2000 


The first part of this paper will give an overview of the present EPA organization with a  discussion of current programs in Green Engineering and Management.  I will focus on   how EPA is structured, why it is structured that way, where Green Engineering and Management fit in, and where we are now.  The second part will focus on where we are going.  I will talk about sustainability in a context that is more philosophical and speculative.  In both where we are and where we are going, the systems approach to environmental problems encompassed by industrial ecology is applicable.  In the present EPA, an industrial ecology approach helps the agency with its current tasks and points the direction in which to go.  In the sustainability direction, industrial ecology provides a stepping off point for the next changes that need to take place.


First let us look at the present of EPA.  The mission of EPA is “to protect human health and the environment.”  The agency structured itself around the laws which addressed the various media in which pollution occurs—air, water, solid waste.  Form followed function as the structure of EPA followed the named legislation—the Clean Air Act, the Water Pollution Control Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act.  At the time the agency was organized, EPA was concerned mainly with the pollution at the end-of-pipes-- pollutants going into the environment from an identified source. The offices of EPA wrote the regulations for which they were responsible, and became specialized and very expert as a result of their legislatively-defined mandates.  These regulatory programs still form the essential core of environmental protection.  For the most part, the regulatory model was dominant in the actions of EPA throughout the first 20 years. 


The regulatory structure through the legislative mandates to EPA led the agency to a "command and control" approach to environmental protection.  In this model, standards are set (the command part) that in practice lead to mandated technologies which stop pollution at the end of the pipe (the control part).  These types of regulations tend to focus on a single pollutant at a time and require reduction in rates of that pollutant.  Sometimes under this model, technologies which could reduce pollution through engineering changes in processes are discouraged because end of pipe treatment technologies have been mandated and need to be paid for regardless of upstream technological improvements.  Sometimes, a new process may be cleaner overall, but a single pollutant exceeds the limits and hence prevents the whole system from being built.  The command and control approach to environmental regulation also requires permits, which can take a long time.


In the last decade of the 20th Century, changes have occurred, and EPA is finding more flexible, cost-effective and common sense ways to protect human health and the environment.  While the regulatory functions remain central, EPA has added the Pollution Prevention Act and pollution prevention parts of other legislation to its mandates.  New ways of reaching environmental goals are being tried--some are voluntary.  Administrators of the various offices at the agency discussed innovation and  “reinventing” environmental protection.  A framework was developed that led and is still leading to improvements in how EPA practices environmental protection through streamlining and innovating within the existing Agency programs as well as developing and testing new approaches to help integrate across traditional media programs.  Partnerships with other government agencies, businesses, communities and individuals have played a part in the new approach to meeting environmental goals.  In addition, new technologies have helped keep the public informed about environmental conditions in their local communities through information about the releases of toxic emissions and through real-time pollutant monitoring programs.


For example, some new standards are used that specify the environmental outcome rather than end of pipe rate reductions in single pollutants.  Watershed approaches and pollution allowance trading are just 2 examples.  Indeed, these are systems approaches rather than single pollutant approaches.  These more liberal pollution prevention programs are showing that environmental standards can be maintained and frequently exceeded if there is a greater choice in how to achieve those standards.  To quote Commoner again,”…we now know that environmental pollution is an incurable disease; it can only be prevented.”


The research program that I manage in the Office Of Research And Development is an example of the move to pollution prevention.  The National Center for Environmental Research operates the STAR grants program which funds environmental research in academia and non-profit organizations.  The Technology For Sustainable Environment program is part of the STAR grants program.  It is also a partnership between EPA and the National Science Foundation to fund basic academic research in technologies which prevent pollution at its source.  Over the past five years, more than a hundred research projects have been funded which address a variety of research areas and incorporating many disciplines. All research aims toward the same outcome---preventing pollution before the end of pipe.  In many cases, these 3 year grants have already led to patents and technologies that are put into practice.  For example, a new technology for surfactants that dissolve in liquid CO2 has led to a chain of dry cleaners using this process.  Industries are interested in a genetically-engineered yeast has been grown which ferments ethanol from cellulosic biomass.  Results from these grants form part of EPA’s efforts to prevent pollution.


We fund grants under 4 general topics: green engineering; green chemistry; measurements, assessments and modeling; and industrial ecology.  These areas break into 8 scientific thrust areas:  hazardous solvent replacement, modification of unit processes, bioengineering, including use of waste bioproducts as starting materials for commodity chemicals and metabolic engineering to make better enzymatic catalysts; modification of chemical reactions to create more environmentally benign pathways or use less toxic starting materials; green design, manufacturing and industrial ecology developing systems techniques such as input-output analysis and life cycle assessment; improved catalysis; recycle or reuse within an industrial plant; and others such as improved refrigerants or more sophisticated sensors.  Abstracts of all these grants are on our web page and can be searched by subject matter.


The Office Of Pollution Prevention And Toxics has a variety of programs that support pollution prevention approaches to environmental protection.  These include the Green Chemistry Program which has promoted environmentally benign synthesis and environmental awareness to chemists and the chemical industry throughout the world.  Green Engineering and Design For The Environment  are also important programs within the Office Of Pollution Prevention And Toxics.  In order to help a new generation of pollution prevention engineers, the Green Engineering Program is supporting a green engineering textbook and development of a new curriculum in pollution prevention.  Prevention approaches exist in many other parts of the agency, and are beginning to move to the next level of environmental protection which involves sustainability.


A recent Roper Starch poll commissioned by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation tested the environmental awareness of 1,000 U.S. citizens.  In addition to scoring an average of 63 percent on a simple environmental quiz, when asked to identify the major environment problems of the future, the persons taking the poll could only relate to environmental problems of the past like polluted streams and air.  Of course, that is not to say that these problems are completely gone or will not exist in the future nor is it to say that in some countries less developed than the United States these are not major problems.  It is to say that the future problems that we all, as citizens of the world, are facing are different from those in the past.  The new environmental problems do not involve a single pipe spewing toxic substances nor a single action or compound that can be controlled.  These problems are global, widespread, and affect all of humanity regardless of economics or borders.  Scientists identify the major problems of the future as greenhouse gases and global warming and a population beyond the carrying capacity of the earth.  While the U.S. public remains supportive of environmental protection, they have yet to be educated on the new set of environmental problems.  Some of these problems must be solved in order for life, at least human life, to be sustained on the planet.  An earlier Roper poll (1992) which surveyed opinions on sustainable development determined that 23% of American adults (45 million people) did indeed “think globally and act locally.”  These individuals were not waiting for leadership but were proactive in focusing their attention on home and community life,  cornerstones of sustainable development.  Now is the time to make decisions with respect to sustainability.  As Stephen Jay Gould says: " Better sign the papers while (the planet) is still willing to make a deal."


Several forces presently are at work changing the face of environmental protection—and moving toward the signing of the papers.  These forces include multinational corporations which have to answer to a variety of national laws and customer green demands, government agencies like the United Nations and the European Union, and non-governmental organizations which add think tanks to the voices of environmental groups. 


Currently, within EPA, there is movement toward systems approaches and sustainability.  Over 25 industrial ecology related programs within EPA, ranging from LCA to DfE; eco-industrial parks to waste exchanges; materials flow studies to full cost accounting have been identified.  An industrial workshop at EPA last fall developed a series of recommendations that will help to plan a strategy for future environmental frameworks in system-based environmental protection..  The Office of Research and Development is also beginning to develop a research agenda in sustainability.  The first intra-office discussions will be held at a 3-day workshop in late June.  There are many changes going on at EPA with respect to how we go about environmental protection.


In order to reach true sustainability, we must rethink what is needed to galvanize this next wave of environmental protection.  Scientists and engineers have always provided the basis for reaching environmental goals.  However, it is often other disciplines that have carried the banners forward publicly.  In the command and control stage of regulation, lawyers were in the forefront.  The laws allowed for quick and effective solutions to environmental problems. 


In the pollution prevention stage of environmental protection, economists are more in the forefront, making economic arguments for doing the right thing in the first place rather than facing the fines and treatment imposed at the end of pipe.  Industrial ecology approaches such as design for the environment, life-cycle assessment, and materials recycling are attractive to industrial potential polluters, because, in general, they result in cost savings or increased profits.  The economic arguments for industrial ecology tools have been convincing to most global corporations.  However, sustainability should not be confused with becoming more environmentally sensitive. 


Corporations are also aware of the rapid transfer of environmental information via the internet.  The effects of immediate widespread information has allowed the public to act more quickly than ever before on local or widespread environmental problems.  For corporations, using good environmental management systems helps maintain good relations with consumers who now can easily check the environmental actions of these corporations through increased easy access to information.  Both strong regulations and increasing public disclosure have been effective in controlling pollution from industrial sources.


But sustainability reaches well beyond environmental protection by control, treatment or prevention.  Sustainability in some senses equates to survivability.  What kind of discipline will set a stage for sustainability which involves change in individuals’ way of thinking?  Is it time for philosophers to take over where economists leave off?  If we are to move from exploiting nature in the least polluting matter to protecting and nurturing our environment, and if we are to operate human industrial endeavors using a model from nature's ecology, this must involve a change in individuals’ perceptions of environmental protection and the way each of us views their own relationship to the natural environment. 


In this century, in the U.S. at least, new ways of thinking have been galvanized by seminal writings and visual icons.  For example, Neville Shute's novel, On The Beach, humanized the horrors of nuclear destruction and helped change the public opinion to bring about nuclear test bans.  Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the image of the Cuyahoga River burning brought environmental problems to the forefront and helped lead to the passing of laws and founding of institutions dealing with environmental deterioration.  Perhaps someone at this conference will write that seminal book or take the photograph that provides the visual icon which moves our minds to thinking about sustainability. 


For much of the world, thoughts about sustainability will come harder and later.  Here I will draw a parallel hierarchy of needs to get to sustainability with Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs of individuals.  Maslow was a 20th Century psychologist  who studied the behavior of normal persons rather than those identified with “sick brains”.  At the most basic level, as identified by Maslow, human needs are physiological, the biological necessities food, water, and air.  This stage could equate to the command and control stage of environmental protection.  If the food, water or air were contaminated, the basic biological necessities of humans would not be met.  Low income countries such as China, India, Azerbaijan, most of Sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti, etc. could fall into this level where major efforts need to go toward meeting very fundamental physical  needs.


Maslow’s second level of human needs is for safety.  This has to do with maintaining a safe environment in emergencies or times the disorder or disaster.  Again, a higher level of environmental protection deals with an orderly way of preventing disasters and dealing with emergencies.  One could equate this was a pollution prevention approach.  Pollution is not generated by the system of production and a higher level of environmental quality is achieved.  Middle level income countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Croatia, Mexico, most South American countries, etc. could be placed in this level particularly since there is the possibility to “leapfrog” into newer, less polluting technologies as systems of production are developed.


The next level of human needs deals with love and belonging.  We all want  to escape loneliness and alienation .  On environmental level, a sense of belonging leads us to the incorporation of human actions in two natural systems.  Systems approaches such as industrial ecology are important.  In addition, a sense of belonging leads to global cooperation on global environmental issues.  The middle income countries again are poised to enter into multinational consortia to deal with cross boundary environmental issues.


The fourth level, esteem, is our need to feel valuable, to have respect for ourselves and others, and not feel weak, helpless or inferior.  At this level, humans are able and confident enough to respect each other and protect other species.  At this level, sustainability is possible.  The previous levels cannot be lost or neglected .  Everything possible must be done to bring all human beings to this level.  High level income countries such as Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, Italy, France, Japan, Australia, etc. have the capacity to act with respect to sustainability.  While we currently suffer from a failure of leadership to address sustainability seriously and outside of the marketplace, I remain optimistic that new leadership will come about that will take on the issue.


Maslow, added a fifth level to his hierarchy of human needs.  That fifth level was self actualization.  When all the other needs were met, one could find one's calling and reach a stage of great contentment and happiness. Perhaps, when we are at peace with our environment and the planet reaches a stage of sustainability, humans will have finally settled into their niche or calling in the earth's environment.  We certainly have exciting challenges ahead.