Productivity increase is a double-edged sword. It could make items available for smaller prices to the consumers. It could thus fuel increased consumption, which could result in (more) environmental damage. The other aspect of productivity is benevolent. More productivity would mean less consumption of resources per unit of the produce. Resources could, therefore be conserved by careful productivity increases.
Non-waste Technology: There could be the waste generated by the production process. As Chairman Mao Zhedong had once exhorted, (We can) change wastes into treasures and turn harmful into beneficial. For instance, distillery waste can be turned into cattle feed, gypsum from phosphoric acid plants could be suitably mixed with colliery waste and converted into useful sulphuric acid and cement, by products that are otherwise pollutants can be put to use as resources. Wastes are no longer wastes these could be resources for some other processes. By such methods, wastes getting into the environment are considerably minimized. In an ideal situation there may be no wastes at all. This is termed as ‘non-waste technology’.
Technologists are trying to find solutions to converting harmful pollutants of the modern day industry and associated activities into useful items. For instance, oil spills from tankers moving in the oceans could be made harmless by growing harmless micro-organisms that could feed on the oil. The mass of micro-organisms could be useful sources of protein.
Recycling: A way of reducing depletion of resources is through recycling. For instance waste water can be reused for gardening after some treatment. Energy from spent steam in a power generating station could be recovered and used for some other process within the same plant. This has two uses: heat energy is recovered; thermal pollution due to discharge of hot water into river streams or other water bodies is avoided. Plastic waste could be gathered and reused to make household articles. People of countries such as India are fairly good at recycling. Whether it is plastic or some other items, these are put to different end uses. One problem characteristic of recycling operations in poor countries is that spurious products get into the market. Sometimes, these could create health hazards of serious proportions such as when the waste injection syringes and needles from hospitals fall into the hands of unscrupulous recyclers. Much care is, therefore, needed while discarding wastes and while recycling. However despite efficient and careful recycling, the problem of ultimate disposal remains. For instance, the plastic or rubber that has been reused may not be able to be used any further; this has to be disposed. The questions are: ‘Where?’ and ‘How?’
Product Design mad Value Engineering: Pollution which means undesirable substances/energy can be avoided by using different inputs in a process. Sometimes the final product itself could be polluting when its useful life is over and when it is discarded. This would require a redesign of the final product itself. Product design and value engineering are of much value in this regard. Responsible corporations should design their products with due concern to the environment and ecology. These should also use such inputs which will not hurt the environment.
Technological Eco-systems: There could be solutions that involve an organized attempt from a group of industries. Just as we find various ecological cycles and the interdependent eco-systems in nature, one could consciously design technological eco-systems. An industry’s waste output can be an input for the other industry. The manufacturing operations of these organizations could be so integrated. The community considerations and production/operations decisions should not be divorced from one another. Hence, as an extension of the earlier concept, the other (non-manufacturing) organizations in the vicinity and the surrounding community should all be integrated to form an eco-system. This is not just a technological solution; it is more in the form of a social organization.
There is no doubt that these are encouraging possibilities. However, the pace at which the production/operations systems of the economic activity in general are spewing out the waste products and pollutants, it is imperative that solutions to abate the negativities be developed and implemented faster than that at the present. A sense of urgency is required.
Production and operations management as a discipline has crossed several milestones: improved systems, procedures and management techniques, new technologies and enhanced customer orientation. The next milestone to reach would be that of minimizing costs to the society. This would be on its eventual and steady progress towards service to the society.