Pollution prevention

Pollution prevention is any practice that reduces, eliminates or prevents pollution at its source, instead of trying to clean it up later. When we reduce the amount of pollution that is produced in the first place, there is less waste to dispose of, treat or control. Less pollution means fewer hazards posed to public health and the environment.

Why is it important to prevent pollution?

Pollution prevention reduces both financial costs (waste management and cleanup) and environmental costs (health problems and environmental damage).

Financial benefits: Pollution prevention protects the environment by conserving and protecting natural resources.

Environmental benefits: Pollution prevention boosts economic growth through more efficient production in industry and decreased need for households, businesses and communities to handle waste.

Waste pollution prevention hierarchy

Chart: Most preferable to least preferable pollution prevention options: source reduction, recycling, energy recovery, treatment, disposal or other releases.The top of the waste pollution prevention hierarchy is the most preferred method of pollution prevention and the bottom is the least preferred method.

Source reduction

Source reduction means stopping waste before it happens. This is where you question if you really need the product, and if you do, can you reuse it? Source reduction is the most preferred method. If you can eliminate or reuse the product, you will no longer need to worry about the pollution the product will produce.


Recycling is the process of collecting and processing material that would be otherwise thrown away as trash, and turning it into new products. Recycling is an extremely popular method of pollution prevention, but recycling is still a form of pollution.

Energy recovery

Energy recovery is the conversion of non-recyclable waste into useable heat, electricity or fuel through a process such as combustion, gasification, pyrolization, anaerobic digestion or landfill gas recovery.


Treatment is when we treat hazardous waste to make it less harmful to the environment. Treatment of hazardous waste can be accomplished by chemical, thermal, biological or physical methods.


Disposal is what we do with hazardous waste that has not been destroyed by incineration or other chemical processes. Secure landfills are one example of disposal. It is inevitable that some things must be disposed of, but the less we dispose, the less pollution we emit. 

What can you do to prevent pollution and waste at the source?

Optimize what you use and reduce your waste.

For homes and home offices:

  • Don't buy bottled water. Use reusable bottles or cups to get water from the tap.
  • Don't print out documents unnecessarily – save the paper, and the trees and energy that went into making it!
  • Save energy by selecting computers, lighting and appliances that have earned an ENERGY STAR label, and turning them off when not in use.
  • Choose cleaners and other products labeled with EPA’s Safer Choice logo for safer chemical ingredients.

For businesses:

  • Understand what’s in your trash through a waste assessment or sort.
  • Reduce waste at the source by changing procedures, processes and products.
  • Reuse excess materials at your facility.
  • Purchase environmentally preferable (“green”) goods.
  • When reduction is not an option, maximize recycling.

Learn more

Here are some additional resources about pollution prevention.

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