By Donella Meadows
–September 26, 1991–
Some people in the corporate world see an absolute conflict between business and the environment. Industry wins or the environment wins, take your choice.
Fortunately, there are dissenters from that view. They see the environment as the playing field upon which all life, including corporate life, is supported. They even think there can be bottom-line gains from ecological responsibility. Some of these “green entrepreneurs” have provided a fine example of that philosophy at work. It’s called ICOLP, the Industry Cooperative for Ozone Layer Protection.
ICOLP got started because of a problem with chemicals called CFCs, which are used as industrial solvents whenever anything involving metals has to be squeaky-clean. That includes, for example, the tiny spaces between elements on electronic circuit boards and the rivets that hold together airplanes. CFCs are perfect for metal cleaning because they are effective, cheap, nontoxic, nonflammable, and when you’re through with them they evaporate away without leaving a trace of residue.
The trouble occurs in the “away” to which CFCs evaporate. They end up high in the stratosphere, where they eat up the ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet radiation. If more of that radiation reached the earth’s surface, it would cause blindness, cancers, disorders of the immune system, lower crop yields and all kinds of environmental messes. Because of this danger the world’s major CFC producing and consuming nations have signed an agreement to phase out CFCs completely by the year 2000.
Which left industry with the problem of figuring out how to replace within just a few years CFC-using technologies that had evolved over decades.
AT&T, for example, aimed to be 50 percent CFC-free by 1991 and 100 percent by 1994. The first target was relatively easy. CFCs had been so cheap and easy to use that there were redundant cleaning processes, which could be eliminated at a saving. Some soldering could be done with “low solids” fluxes that don’t require cleaning at all.
Beyond those steps, however, eliminating CFCs will be complicated. Fluxes and solders for circuit boards differ depending on metals, temperature, and impurities. Cleaners have to be chosen to match each board. There will be not one CFC substitute, but a whole host of them. Sometimes changing the cleaner even requires redesigning the board.
AT&T found itself working with one of its hottest competitors, Northern Telecom, and with the EPA to evaluate 40 fluxes and 14 hydrocarbon cleaners for effectiveness, toxicity, flammability, and environmental effects. That joint effort led to the Industry Cooperative for Ozone Layer Protection.
The founders of ICOLP asked themselves not only how they could share information among themselves, but how they could make it available to smaller companies and to manufacturers in developing nations. One of their motivations was speed and efficiency in their own conversion. Another was to spread ozone-safe practices, so the whole world could meet the phase-out deadline.
Two years later ICOLP has 17 paying members, including Ford, Boeing, Digital, General Electric, Motorola, Hitachi, Matsushita, and Toshiba. Members ante up $25,000 year. The money is used, among other things, to maintain a data base called OZONET, which is accessible from 750 cities in 35 countries. OZONET provides information on alternative technologies, new products, conferences and seminars, legislation, and key contacts. It also allows users to pose questions and get quick answers.
ICOLP has published four manuals on such topics as the recycling of CFCs and the use of water solutions for cleaning circuit boards. It has sent technical missions to Brazil, Mexico, the USSR, and China. It conducts seminars, colloquia, and consultancies and has worked with the National Academy of Engineering to streamline the research agenda on CFC alternatives.
Two ICOLP members, Digital Equipment and Northern Telecom, have contributed cleaning methods they pioneered for ICOLP to spread on a non-proprietary basis. Why would competitive companies do such a thing? Because electronics is their business, they say, not cleaning solvents. Because the environmental benefits of spreading these technologies far exceed any marginal profits they might earn.
They sound absolutely sincere when they say that.
ICOLP has its problems, of course. One of them, says Brad Allenby of AT&T, one of ICOLP’s founders, is an “absolute paranoia about liability.” Another is corporate personnel cutbacks that have overloaded ICOLP cooperators with work, forcing them essentially to contribute their time to ICOLP out of their own commitment — which, so far, has been strong enough to keep the coalition effective. Another problem, one by no means limited to ICOLP, is actually transferring technologies to Third World countries.
In spite of the problems, enthusiasm about ICOLP is still running high. Its members recently held a meeting to ask what they had learned that might prove useful to similar industrial coalitions. It is important, they agreed, that they are all CFC users, not manufacturers — it gives them objectivity in finding alternatives. It also helps to recognize that a re-evaluation of industrial processes can save money — because industry gets into wasteful habits.
But the most important key to success, says AT&T’s Brad Allenby, is the realization that “industry can’t run away from its environmental obligations OR from its expertise.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991