Concern about pollution from modern industry and agriculture in the industrialized countries was the main force behind organizing a United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. This was one of the series of UN-sponsored conferences that dealt with global problems (desertification, water, population, etc.). The Stockholm Declaration at the end of this conference placed pollution which was the result of passive strategies from industries at the top of the environmental agenda at the time. Emphasis in the 1970s was on pollution abatement. Emissions and effluents had to be treated to satisfy certain requirements before being released to the environment. The major industrialized countries were reported in the 1970s to be spending billions of dollars on the control of industrial pollution. In the Federal Republic of Germany the share of investment in industrial pollution control between 1971 and 1977 was more than 5% of total industrial investment. In Japan, the ratio was as high as 10.6% in 1973, rising to 17.1% in 1975 under the influence of more stringent legislation, before dropping to 5% in the early 1980s. In the USA, the ratio was 5.8% in 1975.

The situation was becoming progressively more serious as new legislation on the use of chemicals was promulgated in the mid-1970s. New industrial chemicals now had to go through stringent, expensive, and time-consuming tests before being marketed. Furthermore, the cost of monitoring compliance to the new requirements was mounting as more personnel, both in industry and in government, became involved in monitoring polluting releases. One estimate is that over US$ 300 billion was spent worldwide each year on environmental projects, most of which was spent on purchasing and maintaining treatment technologies. With the promotion of the polluter pays principle by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1975, it was the consumers who foot the bill in the final analysis. This situation could not go on for obvious reasons. During the latter half of the 1970s the concept of low and non-waste technologies emerged, now shifting the emphasis to pollution prevention (PP), rather than pollution treatment. The 1989 decision of UNEP’s Governing Council was perhaps in response to this shift of emphasis. The UNEP Industry and Environment Office in Paris assembled a small core group of experts to work out a program for the implementation of the Governing Council decision. It is both interesting and instructive to look back at the way thinking of the core group developed as work proceeded. First, they agreed that no justifiable distinction can be made between clean and dirty technology. There is no absolutely clean technology: one technology can only be shown to be cleaner than another. This means that there will always be room for improvement to develop still cleaner and cleaner technologies as time goes on.

The ultimate ideal goal is a technology that produces no pollution at all, as if the production process is going on inside a bubble into which raw materials are introduced and out of which come only products (the bubble theory). Further consideration led to realization of the need to take into account the pollution a product produces as it is being used (e.g., the exhaust gases from a car). Expansion of the scope of the analysis finally extended both ways, downstream of manufacture and use of a product to its disposal as waste; and upstream to the supply side and the pollution produced in extracting and processing the inputs of raw materials and semi-finished goods.

Consequently, the investigation needs to address products also, rather than technologies only. It has to extend across the whole life cycle of products (the so-called cradle to grave analysis). It has to investigate product design, production process, and management practices.

The term Cleaner Production was defined by UNEP in 1990 as “The continuous application of an integrated environmental strategy to processes, products and services to increase efficiency and reduce risks to humans and the environment”. This definition has been used as the working definition of all programmes related to the promotion of cleaner production and still continues to be a valid definition.

Several complementary CP techniques or practices are possible, ranging from low or even no cost solutions to high investment, advanced clean technologies. A common distinction for CP implementation in developing countries is:

  1. Good Housekeeping: appropriate provisions to prevent leaks and spills and to achieve proper, standardized operation and maintenance procedures and practices;
  1. Input Material Change: replacement of hazardous or non-renewable inputs by less hazardous or renewable materials or by materials with a longer service life-time;
  1. Better Process Control: modification of the working procedures, machine instructions and process record keeping for operating the processes at higher efficiency and lower rates of waste and emission generation;
  1. Equipment Modification: modification of the production equipment so as to run the processes at higher efficiency and lower rates of waste and emission generation;
  1. Technology Change: replacement of the technology, processing sequence and/or synthesis pathway in order to minimize the rates of waste and emission generation during production;
  1. On-Site Recovery/Reuse: reuse of the wasted materials in the same process or for another useful application within the company;
  1. Production of Useful By-Products: transformation of previously discarded wastes into materials that can be reused or recycled for another application outside the company; and
  1. Product Modification: modification of product characteristics in order to minimize the environmental impacts of the product during or after its use (disposal) or to minimize the environmental impacts of its production.

Nonetheless, the confluence of global economic and environmental crisis that has occurred in recent years has consolidated the understanding of the interdependence between our economic and environmental systems and provided a new impetus to international efforts to promote the transition towards more sustainable industrial systems and Green Industry. This has required the broadening of the definition of cleaner production to include resource efficiency which is a key element of the transitions towards Green Industry and Green Economy.

What is RECP?

Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production continuously applies integrated and preventive strategies to processes, products and services. This increases efficiency and reduces risks to humans and the environment. RECP specifically works to advance

  • Production Efficiency – through optimization of productive use of natural resources (materials, energy, water) at all stages of the production cycle;
  • Environmental Management – through minimization of the adverse impacts of industrial production systems on nature and the environment;
  • Human development – through minimization of risks to people and communities, and support to their development.

SCP aims at “doing more and better with less,” increasing net welfare gains from economic activities by reducing resource use, degradation and pollution along the whole lifecycle, while increasing quality of life. This change towards SCP involves different stakeholders, including business, consumers, policy makers, researchers, scientists, retailers, media, and development cooperation agencies, among others. It requires a systemic approach and cooperation among actors operating in the supply chain, from producer to final consumer. It involves engaging consumers through awareness-raising and education on sustainable consumption and lifestyles, providing consumers with adequate information through standards and labels and engaging in sustainable public procurement, among others.