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Materials – Driving toxic volume

Once we break down the toxic release data further to find the industrial activities that release the highest amount of chemicals, materials manufacturing comes to the fore. Emissions and emission rates have moderated, but there are factors beyond the recovery from the pandemic that will push them higher.

Of the top ten activity groups contributing to toxic chemical releases over the last 10 years seven are in the manufacturing sector. And among those, materials manufacturing is the most polluting. We therefore concentrated on materials and added in chemical wholesalers, who also emit substantial amounts of toxic chemicals, to round out the group.

Together, this group emitted less than in 2019 extending a moderating trend into a second year. In 2020, emissions were 13% lower than a year ago and 24% lower than 10 years ago.

That comparison alone strongly suggests that there will be a rebound in 2021 since the rate of decline in the last year was exceptionally steep. The other factor that will push emissions higher in 2021 and beyond is that some of the materials involved – cement, metals, adhesives and paints – are central to infrastructure projects (https://www.linkedin.com/posts/aza-soyul_measuring-mitigation-activity-6831283046138953728-p2hO).

Another factor pointing to higher release of pollutants: the emission rate of industries not affected by the pandemic (paper, adhesives and paints) was higher compared to the previous five and 10 year averages. As we pointed out in a previous blog (http://aza-soyul.com/preliminary-toxic-release-inventory-data-for-2020-open-and-closed/), industries that slowed down during the pandemic tended to show better waste control ratios.

Difference in percentage points between the 2020 rate of emission and the previous 5- and 10-year averages

We remarked in the article yesterday that smaller, perhaps less efficient companies will have shuttered more plants, and this is reflected in the data. For example, while emission rates for cement manufacturers overall dropped, they did not move much at the larger companies.

Difference in percentage points between the 2020 rate of emission and the previous 5- and 10-year averages for 10 largest (ordered from bottom to top) cement makers

The same is true for steel and iron makers. The largest firms did not see much change in the rate of toxic emissions, although the sector as a whole emitted less.

Difference in percentage points between the 2020 rate of emission and the previous 5- and 10-year averages for five largest (ordered from bottom to top) steel and iron makers

The differences between companies gives buyers – the federal, state and local agencies financing infrastructure projects choices between various suppliers. Beside, quality and price of the materials, the impact of the manufacturing process on the environment should be a consideration in choosing suppliers.

There are also differences between different facilities of the same company, which offers buyers even more choices. Looking at the largest contributors to emissions in selected materials sectors, and breaking down the environmental performance by the amount each facility contributes to the company total, we can see that larger plants have in general done more to improve waste controls.

Difference in percentage points between the 2020 rate of emission and the previous 5- and 10-year averages grouped by the total emission amount