Faced with the issues of pollution and global warming, we feel helpless and want to know “who is to blame”. Who are the big culprits? Heavy industry, fashion, digital media, transport, agriculture, factory livestock farming?
To identify the planet’s most polluting industries, we have to carry out a painstaking investigation. Firstly to analyse where soil, air and water pollution originates, and then to assess the culpability of each polluter. Fortunately, these days there is an increasing number of ever more precise pollution indicators to identify the big culprits, the planet’s biggest polluters.
First of all, what is pollution?
To pollute is to damage an ecosystem or the environment, or to destroy it completely by introducing foreign elements that are harmful to it. It might be plastic in the sea, toxic emissions in the soil or rivers, particles in the air or litter in the natural environment. By definition, ecosystems are continually changing. So they can adapt to the introduction of these materials, but only up to a point. At any event, pollution threatens their delicate balance, and not always in the way that you might think. For example, green algae can proliferate because of human activity to the point of suffocating the rest of the aquatic environment that they colonise. This is another form de pollution for which mankind is culpable, even though algae are naturally-occurring organisms.
The difference between pollution and CO2
When we talk about pollution, these days we automatically mention carbon dioxide (CO2). Whereas we produce CO2 ourselves, by breathing! So the problem is not so much its presence in the air, which is natural, but rather the consequences of excess emissions of it, mainly caused by burning fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal). Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which contributes significantly to global warming if present in the atmosphere in excessive amounts. Greenhouse gases are so called because they prevent the infrared rays emitted by the Earth from escaping into space by covering them like a lid. This causes the temperature of the atmosphere underneath to rise, like in a greenhouse. This phenomenon is a natural one that gave rise to life on Earth, but human activities that dump vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the system create an imbalance that causes the climate machine to malfunction.
Who pollutes what?
It’s not easy to assess the extent of the impact of each polluting industry: how much greenhouse gas does it emit? How can pollution with plastic be assessed? And pollution with chemicals? It’s better to break it down by source of pollution – of the soil, air or water – and by sector of activity – automotive, transport, industry, agriculture and livestock farming.
Who pollutes the soil?
Soil is deemed polluted if it has been sullied by chemicals that contaminate flora and fauna. This type of pollution is caused mainly by chemical waste from industry, intensive livestock farming and agriculture. This is because of plant protection products and notorious herbicides (like glyphosate) and chemical fertilisers, which are used in farming. Pollution can also be caused by large amounts of animal excreta from factory livestock farming, which saturate the environment and become toxic (see below). But it can also be chemical emissions from a factory, or waste water from drug manufacturing plants, consequently full of active pharmaceutical agents, that spread through the soil. It can also be hydrocarbons that leak out near a petrol pump, for example.
Who pollutes the air?
- Of course, cars emit a lot of fine particles, but not so much via the engines, which these days are fitted with quite efficient filters. Vehicle pollution comes primarily from friction against the brake discs and tyre wear on the road. These two types of friction generate a fine dust of particles mainly made up of carbon black and heavy metals like copper, barium, nickel, chrome, lead and zinc, which are highly toxic.
- Sea freight is the other big culprit, along with aeroplanes. “Supertankers”, these giant freighters that transport, export and import almost all of the world’s goods, generate an absolutely gigantic amount of sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide and ultrafine particle pollution … Mainly because of the fuel on which they run, which is one of the world’s dirtiest, a heavy oil residue that does not burn easily.
- Coal-fired power stations, which are often overlooked, are one of the worst sources of fine and ultrafine particles which make their way very deeply into the human body. They are legion in Asia, and also in Europe, like in Poland or Germany, where 25% of electricity comes from coal-fired power stations. In France, coal-fired power stations have almost completely disappeared, since more than 70% of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear power which emits barely any CO2 or fine particles.
Who pollutes water?
Rivers, lakes and the sea can (and do) get polluted by the same substances as the soil, via the rainwater that permeates it. A heavily polluted zone can lead to the total destruction of a wetland ecosystem, if animals and plants can no longer live there. Discharges from livestock farming can also disrupt the water’s balance and lead to a proliferation of harmful and / or invasive species like green algae. But on top of this pollution comes the waste that goes directly into rivers, lakes and the sea. As for the sea, sunscreen is a waste material that suffocates marine environments, deprives them of light by forming a film on the surface (depending on the filters used in the sunscreen) or leads to the destruction of precious coral. On top of these pollutants come toxic substances emitted at sea like oil spills that ravage everything in their wake, and especially plastic, which forms a microplastic soup as it breaks down, and is then absorbed by marine organisms.
Who are the biggest polluters?
A great deal of increasingly sophisticated measuring methods, indicators and indexes make it possible to analyse and above all quantify pollution inflicted by various industries. On a global scale, since the polluting industries are very different from country to country. The analysis of all this data culminates in the identification of the planet’s five biggest polluters.
The textiles industry
As the fifth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the textiles industry uses a lot of resources, particularly water. It also generates many types of pollution, the primary one being due to dyeing textiles, which elevates it to second place in terms of water pollution worldwide. Clothing production and fibre processing, not least that of synthetic fibres, requires an arsenal of toxic chemicals which end up in the waste water that comes out of factories. This often occurs in poor countries that do not have sufficient regulations to apply pressure to brands.
The transport sector is the big air pollution culprit. On various levels: on average, a train journey emits 10 times less CO2 than the same journey made by car, and up to 50 times less CO2 than the same journey made by aeroplane. When burning fuel, aeroplane engines, train tyres, supertankers and cars emit fines particles that are a health hazard. However, the damage goes beyond vehicle use. During the production process a very large amount of materials and toxic products are used and waste generated. This doubles the environmental impact of these means of transport, as well as emitting record amounts of CO2.
Agriculture and intensive livestock farming
Agriculture and intensive livestock farming have something in common: they generate ammonia. This chemical compound comes from nitrogenated crop fertilisers, and also from animal excreta which poses serious problems related to the practice of “spreading”. This technique consists of using nitrogen-rich slurry as fertiliser on fields. Like pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers that annihilate biodiversity along the way, the toxic slurry by-products end up in the soil, then in waterways, where they are present in the form of nitrates. This contamination can reach the water tables, rendering water unfit for human consumption. Plus, nitrogen and nitrates stimulate the proliferation of green algae, which then colonise the coastlines. This the case in Brittany due to the huge pig farms located upstream of the watershed.
The manufacturing of smartphones, computers, tablets, TVs, Internet access boxes, hard drives… etc. generates a great deal of pollution throughout their life cycle.
First of all, manufacturing them requires a great deal of rare metals: copper, lithium, gold, cobalt… They are often mined in an unscrupulous way which pollutes the environment terribly, drains resources and weakens ecosystems. It also exploits the populations of these regions, at times involving child labour. This process applies not only to the manufacturing of devices, but also to “data centres”, these immense digital centres that store digital data and host online content. All of these tools and pieces of hardware become waste products when they no longer work. Very few of them get recycled, whereas some of the metals that they contain will soon start to become scarce. Plus, the digital sector now accounts for some 4% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide! Internet use (watching films via streaming, using connected devices, using social networks complete with photos and videos, and even just running Google searches or browsing a website…) places demands on data centres to consume a lot of energy. If it is generated from fossil fuels, it will emit sizeable amounts of CO2.
Instead of “pollution”, it would be more fitting to talk about “pollutions”. The epiphany is starting, and in this fight to preserve the environment, our choices as consumers are at least as important as the policies implemented. That’s strength in numbers. Cutting out or cutting down on meat, favouring the train over the aeroplane… These are the new habits that we must embrace, before the day comes when we quite simply no longer have a choice.