Environmental impacts of service sector could be reduced through incentives
Incentives rather than regulation should be used to reduce the environmental impacts of the US service sector, according to a study.
Independent research organisation, Resources for the Future (RFF), says the health care, food service, and tourism industries – which account for three-quarters of US employment and GDP – should work with federal and local government to create incentives for service businesses to adopt environment-friendly practices. These could range from reducing energy use in fast-food chains to educating tourists about protecting sensitive habitats.
The study says that the US health sector should adopt alternatives to mercury and move towards off-site assembly of medical products; the food service and food retail sector should use its influence to change the behaviour of suppliers and consumers; and tourism should reduce environmental damage by launching educational schemes which complement existing regulations.
The Director of RFF’s Center for Risk Management, Terry Davies, told edie that the study had found that most of the situations simply didn’t lend themselves to regulation. “Most of the key environmental opportunities we saw – for example, food stores and restaurants – did not lend themselves to regulation, although there were exceptions in the medical sector. The pay-off is in upstream leverage – for instance, McDonalds has five percent of the potato market in the US and can therefore leverage the US potato market. The real environmental impacts in the food sector do not come from the restaurants and retailers, but from the pesticides and fertiliser problems caused by the growers. So from our perspective, you wouldn’t want to regulate the restaurants: it’s better to get them to leverage the suppliers.”
Of the three industries studied, health care was found to have the greatest direct impact on the environment, mainly as a result of the use of mercury, nuclear products and other hazardous materials in health facilities. It is estimated, for instance, that 10% of all mercury used in the US is used in dental applications.
RFF say US health officials have been slow to adopt alternatives to mercury. While calling for the continued development and use of substitute materials, the group recommends the transition away from on-site assembly of medical products using mercury and radioactive materials in favour of central, off-site locations, where the waste that is generated can be better handled.
The study also says that, despite an increased stream of medical waste, the rate of hospital-acquired infections has remained stable. It calls on the health care sector to seek new ways to reduce infections without exacting so large an environmental cost. Reduced waste would also help cut the demand for on-site incinerators, which now are the third largest emitters of dioxin-like compounds, according to the EPA.
The prime environmental challenges facing the food service and food retail industries involve the generation of significant amounts of solid waste, assurance of food safety, high energy-intensity levels, and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in refrigeration, the study says.
Generally, however, these impacts are not particularly large or unique to the food service and food retail industries.
The study says these industries are in a position to influence the behaviour of suppliers and consumers. They can encourage producers, wholesalers and distributors to reduce packaging, use recycled materials or reduce pesticide use, for example. In addition, firms can offer more environmentally-friendly choices to consumers, thus helping raise consumer awareness.
The study points to collaborations between industry and environmental organisations – such as the 10-year alliance between McDonalds and Environmental Defense (formerly EDF) – which have resulted
in reduced packaging and greater use of recycled materials.
The food industries should also work with government agencies and food marketing companies to improve food handling and bolster food safety systems, the study recommends.
The scattered nature of the tourism industry makes it resistant to integrated, holistic regulatory approaches, the study says.
Businesses and regulators are most likely to reduce the harmful environmental effects of tourism – such as damaging ecosystems, increasing traffic, generating air and visual pollution and changing the local character of an area – by launching educational schemes tailored for specific audiences and designed to complement existing regulations, the study says.
For example, officials could combine a prohibition against anchoring a boat in a sensitive marine ecosystem with an explanation of the potential damage a boat can do to that ecosystem. Hotels can offer guests the choice of having their linen cleaned less frequently, and use this as an opportunity to explain the environmental benefits of such a programme.
Educational approaches could also be targeted at the industry by emphasising the cost savings and marketing benefits of ‘green’ tourism, the report says.
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