Total discharges fell due to the drop in activity in some industries, but waste control efforts diverged. The economic sectors that remained open stagnated or got worse. The ones that were shut did better.
For this overview we used the activity of each facility rather than the sector of the parent company. A financial holding company such as Berkshire Hathaway is active in dozens of industries, from aerospace to insurance to railroads to utilities. Examining the data at the facility level allows us to disaggregate for a more focused analysis of activity and environmental performance.
The four top emitting activities are manufacturing, mineral extraction, including oil and gas, utilities and waste management. Manufacturing and the extraction industry hit the brakes last year, with the energy sector down massively. Their total emissions into air and water dropped. In the case of the extraction industry, toxic releases dropped to the level last seen in 2009 when the shale revolution was still picking up steam.
Utilities continued a long-term decline linked to the idling of coal-fired power plants. Waste management did not change much, hovering around the levels seen in the last decade.
In order to better understand environmental performance, it is best to look at environmental releases in the context of production. The best measure is the ratio of release to production of waste. If that ratio is below 1, then the company or facility is dealing with waste in ways other than emitting it into the neighborhood.
Looking at the above four sectors using this metric, the contrast between industries that were affected by closures and those that remained open is starker. Extraction industries improved their waste controls dramatically, and manufacturing also did better. Waste management meanwhile bounced back above the 2019 level.
This pattern repeats itself in sectors below the top 4. Construction waste control improved as did professional and technical services. Transportation and warehousing, wholesale and retail trade stagnated or got worse.
The explanation for this divergence is most likely an economic one: Companies chose to keep open their most efficient plants, which are typically the best at minimizing waste emission. Companies with fewer and less efficient plants who did not have the luxury of choosing which plant to keep open, were forced to shut down earlier and stay closed for longer as market conditions deteriorated.
If this is true, then 2021 toxic release totals will be quite a bit higher as economic activity picks up and the less efficient facilities come back on line.