The solution

Page - September 28, 2010
The Public's Right to Know

The public's right to know is essential to any effective public participation, good governance and sustainable business. It is comprised of legal initiatives like access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.The right to know allows the public to know more about products, projects or activities that may adversely affect their health and environment. Producers become more accountable when the stakeholders know about the hazardous chemicals they use or release in each stage of the product life cycle. It increases transparency and accountability of government in any decision making.

Within a Clean Production context, the right to know is a legal principle that gives the individual the right to know which chemicals they might be exposed to in their daily lives. A key concept within this principle is the full disclosure of environmental information in the form of a Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR). The PRTR can drive better product designs, cleaner products and production processes, and more efficient use of materials and energy so that companies can adhere to the principles of Clean Production.

What is a PRTR?

A Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) is a national or regional environmental database or inventory of potentially hazardous chemical substances and/or pollutants released to air, water and soil. It also contains information on materials that are transferred off-site for treatment or disposal. PRTRs provide public access to data via the Internet, CD-ROMs, publications and annual reports.

Benefits for the public and other parties

A PRTR can also stimulate interested or potentially affected parties to ask questions on and to seek improvements to human health and environmental well-being.

Benefits for governments

The development and implementation of a PRTR adapted to national needs can assist governments in tracking the generation, release and fate of emissions of hazardous chemical substances and pollutants over time. It can also assist governments in examining their progress in reducing emissions and in setting priorities for reducing, or even eliminating, the most potentially damaging releases and transfers of those substances.

Benefits for industry

The existence of a PRTR can serve as a major driving force for pollution reduction throughout many sectors of the economy. The dissemination of PRTR data can also enable similar industries to benchmark their environmental performance with other companies in the sector and to reduce releases, thereby saving money.

Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers have been initiated under the UN; there are existing projects all over the world, including Asia. PRTRs are legal requirements in many OECD countries.

Extended Producer Responsibility

Toxics pollution cases are on the rise. Food and water contamination and health problems are just a few of the attendant issues attributed to the release of toxic chemicals into the environment. We are in the age of a chemical crisis.

Although there are efforts to curb pollution, the predominant practice is via end-of-pipe pollution control measures. Many times these pollution devices break down or are not operated properly -- if they are even operated at all -- and thus, have been proven ineffective. In cases of environmental releases of toxic chemicals, no amount of clean up can give 100% results.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a tool that falls within the scope of Clean Production. It is a new way of dealing with products and waste streams, particularly those that contain toxic chemicals. It transfers the burden of dealing with these problematic waste streams from the consumer to the producer/manufacturer because they have the power and the resources to decide and implement changes through product and process redesigns.

EPR allows the producer to reexamine the production chain, develop better product and process designs, find substitutes for toxic components, reduce energy and raw materials inputs, and institute take back systems. It also encourages more materials recovery and recycling. All these provide incentives to further improve product designs so that the product responsibility loop is closed and toxic releases are eventually eliminated from the entire product life cycle.

Clean Production

Current industrial production patterns using hazardous chemicals have caused harm to the environment and to our health and have pushed the planet to the brink of disaster. To help reverse this chemical crisis, we need a change in the way we produce and consume things.

Clean Production is a new way of looking at production and consumption patterns. It entails the redesign of products in order to

  • eliminate hazardous chemicals in all stages of a product’s life and seek safe and sustainable alternatives;
  • minimize waste generation;
  • reduce the need for raw materials and energy;
  • use clean, renewable energy sources in the product process and design.

The Clean Production concept seeks to integrate the following principles:

1. The Precautionary Principle: This principle requires companies to take action to avoid environmental and health damage as soon as there are indications of adverse effects.
2. The Preventive Principle: This principle seeks to avoid, rather than manage, environmental and health damage, which can be financially and morally expensive.
3. The Public Participation Principle: This principle provides the public with access to information and allows concerned citizens to participate in decision making.
4. The Holistic Principle: This principle uses an integrated approach towards production that conforms to the cyclical processes of nature.

The ultimate goal of Clean Production is to close the loop of production, consumption and recycling. It means that the products are safe and have zero discharges or emissions. With clean reuse and recycling, materials that are traditionally thought of as wastes are returned to the production cycle as raw materials, thus creating a balance between environmental protection and sustainable economic development.