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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile Series #14: Joseph Ling

Air Date: Week of

Twenty years ago, 3M Corporation’s environmental scientist Joseph Ling created the “Pollution Prevention Pays” program, pioneering the concept of “green” American manufacturing. It transformed 3M — and much of the manufacturing world as well, as reporter Jon Gordon explains.


CURWOOD: Many companies these days have found they can cut costs by cutting pollution, but 20 years ago the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, 3M, was a lonely pioneer among the major corporations in the field of pollution prevention. Today, 3M is still a big polluter, but its environmental gains have set a course for many others to follow. As part of our series on 25 environmental leaders, John Gordon of Minnesota Public Radio profiles Joseph Ling, the man credited with leading 3M's anti-pollution effort.

(Factory motors and whirring)

GORDON: Workers at the St. Paul tape plant guide giant rolls of plastic through huge machines while the material is coated with adhesives. This plant used to spew tons of smog-causing solvents into the air, but in 1983 the plant found ways to recover and reuse its emissions. Now, plant manager A.J. Cook says the operation has cut solvent emissions by 90%.

COOK: Well, we have very few solvent emissions from our tape making operations, even though many of our processes do use solvent. And you go back 12 years, 15 years or more that we had emissions from all of those processes.

GORDON: A certificate hangs on the wall of Cook's office. It's a commendation from Joe Ling, whose 3P program encouraged 3M employees to think about pollution in a radical new way. 3P means Pollution Prevention Pays. Joe Ling began the program in 1975 when he was 3M's Vice President for Environmental Engineering and Pollution Prevention. The company's CEO asked him to find a way to cut costs associated with removal technology, treating pollution after it's created. In a 1977 company film shown to all 3M employees, Ling explains the idea behind 3P.

LING: Over the long run, and in the face of growing environmental restrictions, remove technology is a losing proposition. It represents the type of add-on increments that increases our cost and uses up additional natural resources. Besides, whatever is removed doesn't just disappear. We have to put it somewhere. Therefore, the ideal solution is not to create a pollution problem in the first place.

GORDON: Ling emigrated from China in 1948 and earned the University of Minnesota's first PhD in sanitary engineering. With 3P he challenged plant managers all over the world to invent new processes to prevent pollution. In one early project, 3M figured out a way to coat Scotch brand tape with adhesive using water rather than solvents. Tough air regulations make it expensive for corporations to discharge solvents. By using the water process, 3M saved money. 3M says it saved more than $750 million through some 4,000 individual 3P projects. Joel Makower, publisher of the Green Business Letter, which tracks and promotes environmentally friendly manufacturing and consuming, says pollution prevention was a radical idea in 1975.

MAKOWER: I think the best thing that 3M proved is that you can make money by being environmentally responsible. In fact, you can lose money by being environmentally irresponsible. 3M helped us understand that from a company's perspective, pollution or waste represents something that the company bought, but couldn't use, and in fact had to pay to get rid of.

GORDON: Joe Ling's impact is far-reaching. He not only changed the way 3M does business, but he's credited with helping to transform the way many other manufacturers operate. Retired 3M executive Robert Bringer succeeded Ling in 1984.

BRINGER: I think what Joe brought to the program was a real belief in it, number one, that this was really the way to go, and number two, sort of a boundless enthusiasm to sell the program, not only inside the company but outside the company, too.

GORDON: Ling is now 76 years old and has been retired for 11 years. He says he was inspired in part by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, but says he actually doesn't have much patience for environmentalists.

LING: The environmentalist is asking somebody else to solve their problem. No, no, no, here and now we want you to solve the problem. The pressing issue is a solution: how do you solve the problem? Engineering solves the problem.

GORDON: Critics warn against giving 3M too much credit. They point out 3M is still a major polluter and has a long way to go to become a truly green company. Still, under Joe Ling's 3P program, 3M compiled a record of environmental achievement that set an example for others to follow. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gordon in St. Paul, Minnesota.



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