United States Makes Pollution Prevention a National Goal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With passage of the Pollution Prevention Act, the United States renewed an old approach to environmental management based on the reduction of pollution at the source.

Summary of Event

Until 1990, with the notable exception of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), National Environmental Policy Act (1969) the U.S. government’s approach to environmental management was remedial and medium-specific (that is, specifically limited to air, water, or land pollution problems) rather than preventive and comprehensive. This approach failed to address several critical issues in environmental management. First, pollutants do not remain in a single medium, such as air or water; second, there are many thousands of pollutants, with more being created each year; and finally, dealing with pollution at the point of its release to the environment often created new problems. That was the case with efforts to restrict pollutant discharges into surface water, which led to groundwater pollution as generators turned to on-site storage of liquid wastes in unlined ponds. It gradually became clear that a successful approach must attempt to prevent pollutants from being created in the first place, recycle those that are created, and look at the environment in which pollution takes place as an interdependent ecological unit. The result was the major policy shift reflected in the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. Pollution Prevention Act (1990) Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution Pollution;legislation [kw]United States Makes Pollution Prevention a National Goal (Nov. 5, 1990) [kw]Pollution Prevention a National Goal, United States Makes (Nov. 5, 1990) [kw]National Goal, United States Makes Pollution Prevention a (Nov. 5, 1990) Pollution Prevention Act (1990) Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution Pollution;legislation [g]North America;Nov. 5, 1990: United States Makes Pollution Prevention a National Goal[07910] [g]United States;Nov. 5, 1990: United States Makes Pollution Prevention a National Goal[07910] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 5, 1990: United States Makes Pollution Prevention a National Goal[07910] [c]Environmental issues;Nov. 5, 1990: United States Makes Pollution Prevention a National Goal[07910] Hertel, Dennis Kerry, John Reilly, William

That Pollution Prevention Act (PPA) established pollution prevention as a “national objective” and declared that pollution can be prevented or reduced at the point of its creation. The law emphasized that the source-reduction approach to pollution management was “fundamentally different and more desirable” than the approach of the preceding federal laws and regulations, which had focused on the treatment and disposal of pollutants rather than on reduction at the source of their production.

The PPA specified a hierarchical approach to the reduction and prevention of pollution that enters the environment through recycling, treatment, disposal, or unintended escape. The act defined the most desirable approach as reduction at the source, that is, reducing the amounts of hazardous substances before they enter the environment; reduction should occur in such a way as to reduce the health and environmental hazards associated with release. Pollutants that cannot be eliminated at the source should be recycled in an environmentally safe manner. If recycling cannot eliminate all pollutants, those remaining should be treated. Attempts at disposal or other releases of pollutants into the environment should be regarded only as a last resort.

The act mandated three specific programs. The first was the establishment of the Office of Pollution Prevention Office of Pollution Prevention within the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but independent of its “single-medium” programs. The office was made responsible for the development and implementation of a strategy to promote source-reduction practices and reduce hazardous wastes. It was charged with encouraging businesses and other federal agencies to adopt source-reduction techniques, establishing standard methods for measuring source reduction, reviewing regulations to determine their effect on source reduction, determining instances in which the federal procurement process can be used to encourage source reduction, improving public access to data collected under federal environmental laws, and developing a source-reduction clearinghouse, model procedures for auditing source reduction, a training program on opportunities for source reduction, and an annual awards program. This last requirement resulted in the EPA’s developing several videos, a speakers bureau, a newsletter, brochures, conferences, courses, and a resource guide to training programs. The EPA also established the Pollution Prevention Information Clearinghouse Pollution Prevention Information Clearinghouse (PPIC), which offers a telephone hotline for questions related to pollution prevention, an electronic bulletin board, several computerized databases, a reference library, and a document ordering system.

In the second program, the act, in order to encourage businesses to practice source reduction, authorized an $8 million, one- to three-year grant program, with funds allocated to those states that match the federal money. Individual states are responsible for developing their own source-reduction programs.

The third important program established by the act involves facilities that fall under the reporting provisions of the Toxics Release Inventory Toxics Release Inventory established by Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986) or SARA. Commonly known as the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986) Title III of SARA requires many businesses and industries to report the amounts of toxic substances released to the air, water, and land each year. These facilities were now additionally required to report their source-reduction practices and changes in production for each facility and each toxic chemical used, including the quantities of each toxic substance emitted, quantities recycled, and the percentage change in these figures from the previous year. The act also required that the EPA report to Congress every other year on the actions needed to implement the source-reduction strategy and that it provide an assessment of the grant and clearinghouse programs.


Since its inception, the PPIC responded to tens of thousands of requests for information. Data from the Toxics Release Inventory showed a 35 percent decline in the total amount of toxic chemicals released to the nation’s environment between 1988 and 1992 and a 6 percent decline from 1991 to 1992. In the first four years of the grant program, more than $30 million was awarded to more than one hundred regional, state, and tribal organizations to fund activities aimed at pollution prevention.

The major policy shift legislated with the Pollution Prevention Act was based on the approach taken in the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandated consideration of the cumulative environmental effects of certain activities. NEPA, one of the most successful U.S. environmental laws, radically improved the way these activities were planned, and it withstood many court challenges and was never substantially amended. After NEPA, however, and until the passage of the 1990 Pollution Prevention Act, federal environmental management had taken a very different course. Most of those laws were repeatedly amended, and although billions of dollars were spent, it is questionable whether environmental quality improved during that time. The greatest significance of the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 may lie not in its substantive programs but in its indication of a return to the environmental approach of NEPA.

Many of the specific programs defined by the Pollution Prevention Act already existed before 1990. Between the beginning of fiscal year 1988 and May, 1990, the EPA had awarded nearly $10.9 million in multimedia pollution prevention grants to states; in 1989, the agency published a guidance document for industry to use in its efforts to minimize the generation of hazardous waste; and the Office of Pollution Prevention had been established several years before the act’s passage. By legislatively sanctioning and strengthening these programs, Congress tried to ensure that their preventive, comprehensive focus would continue to shape federal environmental policy.

In the wake of the Pollution Prevention Act’s passage, a number of state offices of pollution prevention were established, most of which received grant funding from the act for special projects. In fact, state involvement and response to industry needs generally increased in response to the act; states adopted their own pollution prevention acts and regulations, and some began to require that companies convicted of violating state laws be environmentally audited. Such increased state activity in turn led to increased industrial compliance.

Local governments also became active in pollution prevention, as reflected in such activities as using waste-disposal companies that offer recycling and sponsorship of household hazardous-waste pickups and educational seminars on waste minimization and conservation. To what extent these changes can be attributed directly to the Pollution Prevention Act is unclear, but the federal government’s policy shift toward prevention was undoubtedly an important factor. Pollution Prevention Act (1990) Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution Pollution;legislation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Change Management Center. Applying Industrial Ecology. Oakland, Calif.: Author, 1993. Provides a comprehensive look at industrial techniques for pollution prevention. Includes an overview of EPA programs and requirements of the Pollution Prevention Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goudie, Andrew. The Human Impact on the Natural Environment: Past, Present, and Future. 6th ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006. Excellent general reference on environmental issues, accessible to lay readers. Chapter 7 discusses air pollution. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGraw, J. “The Denver Airport: Pollution Prevention by Design.” Pollution Engineering, January 1, 1993, 2-12. Presents a case study of EPA’s “Design for the Environment” program as it was applied to a major aviation facility.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scerbo, Dominic. “The Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 and the Revised Toxic Chemical Release Inventory Reporting.” Wire Journal International 26 (March, 1993): 70-77. Gives a concise overview of the provisions of the act that interact with the Toxics Release Inventory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Notice of Availability of Pollution Prevention Grants.” Federal Register 59 (February 23, 1994): 8613-8615. The most authoritative source of information on federal rules and regulations concerning pollution prevention. Includes summary statistics for some Pollution Prevention Act programs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Pollution Prevention Incentives for States. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1993. Provides a thorough overview of the grant programs available to states through the Pollution Prevention Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkinson, David. Environment and Law. New York: Routledge, 2002. Examines the role of laws, nationally and internationally, in protecting the environment. Provides case study examples from U.S. law as well as from British and Australian law. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.

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