Zero pollution and how to achieve it


Mankind’s negative impact on the planet – and its health and environmental consequences – can be summed up in one word: pollution. Environmental and health policies seek to reduce pollution, often on a case-by-case basis, such as by banning or restricting a specific activity or substance..

To tackle such problems in a coherent way in the context of the European Green Deal and the goal of a net-zero, truly sustainable economy by 2050, the European Commission in May published a strategy, the Zero Pollution Action Plan (ZPAP). Jointly with the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability adopted last year, the ZPAPsets out measures that will be taken to end pollution. Zero pollution is defined as reducing discharges to air, soil and water to levels “no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems.” It is an ambitious goal that will need high levels of eco-innovation to succeed.

The Commission wants the zero-pollution aim to be achieved by 2050. In the meantime, a number of goals have been defined for 2030: air-pollution related premature deaths cut by 55% and ecosystems threatened by air pollution cut by 25%; a halving of municipal waste and plastic litter at sea, and a 30% cut in the amount of microplastics entering the environment; a halving of the use of chemical pesticides and of soil-nutrient losses.

Doing all of this will require “investments in clean and sustainable design, circular economy business models, cleaner transport and mobility, low-emission technologies, nature-based solutions and sustainable digitalisation,” according to the strategy.

Strengthening EU’s green, industrial, digital and economic leadership

There are thus multiple opportunities for eco-innovation. The zero-pollution strategy notes that innovation will be needed to make production cleaner, and there are specific needs for innovation in areas including reduction of pollution indoors, cutting pollution in the oceans, reducing pesticide use, limiting industrial emissions, and dealing with issues such as light pollution and nanoparticles.

To help think about these and other challenges, the zero-pollution strategy includes a handy hierarchy of action. The priority should be preventing pollution in the first place, followed by efforts to minimise and control it, and only then by cleaning up and remediating.

As EU countries are working hard to develop their recovery plans and actions, the Commission urges them to seize this opportunity to fight pollution, embracing eco-innovation across the board and reaping the benefits. Green technologies can help Europe reduce pollution and offer business opportunities. Just think of better air pollution monitoring systems, new decontamination techniques, or state of the art solutions to remove microplastics from water.

The challenges are huge but fortunately there are already numerous efforts underway, and a solid basis of experience from EU-backed projects dealing with pollution reduction or elimination. Often these projects go unheralded – they may take place in unglamorous industrial sectors, for example. Nevertheless, the knowledge is there to be built on.

LIFE learning

One source of inspiration is the EU’s long-running LIFE programme, which funds demonstration projects. On 2 June, the winners of the 2021 LIFE Awards were announced. A number of the finalist projects showcased eco-innovations that can contribute to the zero-pollution goal by preventing or reducing pollution at source.

The Hg-rid-LIFE project, for example, dealt with mercury emissions. One of the remaining sources of the toxic metal in Europe is dental fillings in people’s mouths. People in the EU carry 1500 metric tonnes of mercury in their bodies, according to the project. Although mercury in dental amalgam is increasingly restricted in the EU, it ends up in wastewater after being washed through the pipes in dental clinics. The project worked on better flushing systems, removing about 300 grams of mercury per dental clinic from pipes before the substance reaches the wastewater system. Multiplied up across the EU, this could mean up to 63 tonnes of mercury recovered per year – an example of management of a pollutant at source.

Another LIFE project to make the 2021 finals was LIFE Impetus, which also tackled a source of water pollution: pharmaceutical residues. The project, based in Portugal, tested local natural materials – cork, carob and pine nut shells – as absorbents at wastewater treatment plants. The project found that pine nut shells in particular were as good as or better than current commercial absorbents for treating water containing certain pharmaceuticals.

These and other LIFE projects prove the effectiveness of environmental innovations in real working environments. The widespread take-up of such innovations could be a major boost in working towards the zero-pollution goal.

Horizon Europe

The Zero pollution action plan also notes that the EU’s huge research funding programme, Horizon Europe, will support eco-innovation. A number of Horizon Europe missions – or frameworks for projects and policies – are in themselves eco-innovation focused. These include missions on healthy oceans and coastlines (working on issues including plastic litter, microplastics and underwater noise), healthy soils (working, for example, on pesticide reductions and remediation of contaminated sites) and climate-neutral cities.

Meanwhile, under a different type of Horizon Europe framework – partnerships involving companies and public bodies – there will be projects under the headings of reducing chemical risks, zero-emission water and road transport, and transforming production processes.

The last of these, under the title Processes4Planet, will focus in particular on circularity and decarbonisation in the heavy industrial sector – for example, cement, chemicals and steel (see our dedicated article here). A major zero-pollution win could be secured if the partnership can deliver on its circular economy goals. These could see innovation in the way domestic and industrial waste is collected and processed so that it becomes an input material. The use of captured gases and circular use of water could mean zero or almost zero discharges from industrial plants into air and water. Collaboration between sectors will help – for example, a steel industry innovation could be applied in aluminium production.

Until now, as economies have industrialised and become wealthier, pollution has been seen as the inevitable by-product of wealth-generating activities. The issue is typically framed as a trade-off – what is the acceptable price to pay in terms of pollution for the associated benefits. If pollution really can be brought to zero, that trade-off will no longer be relevant. It will be a huge prize for the European Union if it can show the world how to achieve the zero-pollution goal.