Sustainability at EPA: A New Research Focus and Initiatives for Better Environmental Decisions

by Alan D. Hecht

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes that shaping a sustainable future calls for using innovative science and technology in a cost-effective, participatory way. EPA is refining and coordinating current programs that aim to improve industrial practices, assist states and local governments to manage their resources effectively, and promote innovate and inter-disciplinary environmental programs.

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"Through the power of collaborative networks and partnerships, federal agencies, state governments, and the industrial and scientific communities can come together to achieve the goal of sustainability for people, prosperity and the planet."

Mike Leavitt, Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The term "sustainability" has achieved both cachet and controversy since the World Commission on Environment and Development's 1987 report, Our Common Future. This document, better known as the Brundtland Report, specified that development is sustainable when it "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." While sustainability has been described in diverse and conflicting ways, a broad consensus supports its basic principle of balancing economic prosperity, environmental responsibility and social fairness so as to support rewarding lives for people living today and for many tomorrows.
The relevance of this core meaning of sustainability cannot be ignored. In the next half-century, world population is expected to increase by 50 percent, manufacturing activity and energy consumption to triple, and global GDP to reach five times current levels (E. Mathews et al., 2000). These projected trends will lead to environmental, economic and social catastrophes unless we find better ways to use the earth's resources. Fortunately, the concept of sustainability has been garnering global acceptance in the nearly two decades since the Brundtland Commission described it. As a philosophical and policy imperative, it has inspired institutions and individuals to strive for environmental stewardship while promoting economic growth and social objectives.
In the United States, commitment to sustainability has prompted planning and action by federal, state and local government, large corporations and small firms, by consumers and civic groups. There is broad agreement not only that substantial expansion of environmental regulation lacks political feasibility, but that reliance on governmental regulations cannot produce sustainable development. The required changes in product design, industrial processes, use and reuse of materials, and citizen behavior are too extensive and complex to be enforced by prescriptive regulation. The 2004 Federal Sustainability Summit heard testimony from federal managers that many U.S. agencies are seeking to advance sustainable development, assisting state- and community-led initiatives, developing new tools and methodologies, and supporting research and educational activities. Summit participants worked to define relevant issues and coordinate sustainability efforts among their agencies.
Research and Development at the U.S. EPA
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is among the frontline federal agencies recognizing that shaping a sustainable future calls for using innovative science and technology in a cost-effective, participatory way. EPA is refining and coordinating current programs that improve industrial practices, manage resources more economically and effectively, and that assist states and local governments to manage their resources effectively. Today the agency has dozens of policy tools and voluntary, incentive-based programs that encourage and foster a sustainable future. While not all of these programs explicitly refer to sustainability, together they encourage sustainable development. The EPA Sustainability website provides easy access to many of these resources for institutions, communities, and individuals.
While recognizing the momentous progress on environmental issues since its founding in 1970, EPA has begun to assess how it can enhance its current approaches to meet ever more daunting challenges. Its Science Advisory Board, composed of distinguished non-EPA scientists, has been consistently prodding the evolution of sustainability at EPA, urging the agency to support advances in science and engineering as the foundation of a sustainable future.
Former EPA Science Advisor Paul Gilman observed in May 2004 that "EPA's research and technology programs can be an effective force in the design and measurement of our progress toward sustainable systems." The agency's Office of Research and Development (ORD) is leading EPA's efforts to understand sustainability, create solutions, and measure progress. ORD is committed to the advancing science and crafting decision tools for long-term environmental solutions.
Toward this end, ORD has begun to outline a new research strategy for sustainability. A key element of this emerging strategy is the development of new materials and industrial processes to enhance economic growth and minimize environmental risks. Progress is being made in the development of safer chemicals, products that are less material-intensive and more efficient manufacturing processes designed through green chemistry and engineering. Research in these areas can lead to resource conservation and reduced reliance on hazardous substances. In the present era of security concerns, green chemistry and green engineering and the creation of safe and more benign chemicals contribute to social safety as well as good business sense. The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards program is demonstrating how innovative "green" methodologies can reduce manufacturing costs while providing important environmental benefits. Over nine years Challenge Award winners have reduced CO2 emissions by 170,000,000 pounds, use of hazardous substances by 460,000,000 pounds, and use of water by 440,000,000 gallons.
Initiatives for Better Environmental Decisions
ORD has also undertaken several initiatives to make science and technology more effective elements in decision-making. As it identifies and develops the science and technology for sustainability, ORD has the potential to provide the framework for EPA's future decision-making. Complementing the agency's ongoing efforts to advance a new research strategy for sustainability, ORD launched in 2004 the following new initiatives in institutional collaboration, technology, and education.
Collaborative Network for Sustainability. In partnership with EPA's Office of Policy, Economics and Innovation and Office of Regional Operations, ORD has created the Collaborative Science and Technology Network for Sustainability (CNS). This grants program encourages innovative thinking about practical applications of science and engineering to planning and decision-making. Projects are regional in scale and focus on the long-term sustainability of resources in a broader systems context, such as a watershed, urban built environment, or industrial network. Projects address the environmental, economic, and social dimensions of sustainability. The CNS program leverages the growing enthusiasm throughout the country for sustainable solutions by supporting cooperative efforts among government agencies at all levels, academic institutions, nonprofit groups and private firms. EPA will announce the first winners of the CNS awards early in 2005.
Environmental Technology Council. Established to shape and coordinate EPA's technology programs, this council facilitates innovative technological solutions to environmental problems and challenges. It has identified ten priority environmental problems where a focus on technology can bring improved environmental results and is collaborating with industry and other stakeholders to advance technology solutions most likely to lead to significant environmental improvement.
Student P3 Interdisciplinary Design Awards. In early 2004, EPA launched the P3 National Student Design Competition for Sustainability, emphasizing considerations for People, Prosperity and the Planet. From hundreds of proposals, 66 interdisciplinary teams of university students will receive funding to prepare innovative and real-world P3 designs for scientific, engineering, or policy solutions to real-world environmental challenges. On May 16-17, 2005, the teams will present their projects on Washington, DC's National Mall in conjunction with the agency's annual Science Forum. Judges convened by the National Academies will select the P3 Award winners eligible for expanded funding from EPA, industry and nonprofits to underwrite further refining, implementing, and commercial marketing. For the upcoming 2005-2006 P3 Award competition, EPA will solicit proposals through January 27, 2005.
Benchmarking Engineering Curriculum. EPA has also solicited proposals to Benchmark the Integration of Sustainability into Engineering Curricula at U.S. Institutions of Higher Education, with the winner to be announced in early 2005. This project will identify and recognize engineering administrators and faculty who have significantly contributed to advancing engineering education for sustainability. Like P3, this competition will encourage the integration of sustainability into higher education by highlighting successful programs and effective leaders.
International Collaboration. International cooperation will be an important element of EPA's research strategy for sustainability. In May 2005 the agency will host an international conference, "Meeting the Future: A Research Agenda for Sustainability." This gathering will focus on tools, methodologies and case studies that demonstrate how national, regional and local levels are addressing sustainability, with the goal of identifying promising areas for cooperative research. (For more information on the conference, please contact the author.)
These activities reflect the view that sustainability can be a positive stimulus for innovation and a means to foster integrated decision-making. Striving for sustainable development pushes the frontiers of science and business management, and encourages collaborative decision-making. The goal of sustainability can therefore advance U.S. science and technology and be an important driver to shape future environmental policy.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect official views of the EPA.
Brundtland, G. (ed.) (1987) Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press).
Gilman, P. 'New EPA Focus on Sustainability', Science 302 (28 May 2004): 1243-47. Available at

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