Production signals

Page Last modified 08 Dec 2022
7 min read
This section of the zero pollution monitoring assessment presents a series of short case studies that highlight additional sources of information on pollution associated with production.

Production Signal 1: Reducing pollution from Europe’s industrial facilities using best available techniques and the EU Industrial Emissions Portal

European industrial production pollutes air and water, and generates waste. The types of pollution produced include acidifying pollutants (e.g. sulphur oxides (SOx)) and other emissions to air. The latter include a variety of pollutants that can damage human health and the environment, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (in this case, particulate matter with a diameter of 10μm or less, PM10), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and heavy metals including cadmium, lead and mercury. Monitoring pollution sources is key to tracking progress towards minimising the effects of industrial production on ecosystem quality and human health. Monitoring is also instrumental to applying the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

To reduce pollution, natural resource use and waste generation, EU industrial policy aims to drive transition to a low-carbon industry based on circular material flows. To support this ambition, the European Commission has published best available techniques (BAT) reference documents, covering a wide range of industrial activities. These documents also provide guidance on the necessary operating conditions for preventing or minimising emissions and their impacts on the environment. EU Member States are required to take these documents into account when determining BATs either in general or specific cases.

European institutions provide Member States and some cooperating countries with environmental data on industrial facilities. The European Industrial Emissions Portal covers over 60,000 industrial sites from 65 economic activities across Europe. The portal provides key information for developing policy-relevant assessments. One recent study included in the portal demonstrated the positive effects of applying BATs. For example, an analysis of the iron and steel sector found a strong link between BAT implementation and air pollution reductions (Ricardo Energy and Environment, 2018).

Other studies have also examined the value of comprehensively reporting industrial releases (e.g. through the EU Industrial Emissions Portal) and identified how these data contribute to more sustainable and cleaner production processes (Kolominskas and Sullivan, 2004). A recent study in the Netherlands used reported pollutant release data to examine decarbonisation options in the waste incineration sector (PBL, 2022). Moreover, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published an extensive assessment of how publicly-reported pollutant release data are used by various stakeholders (public, non-governmental organisations, and national and local governments) to understand and address industrial pollution risks (OECD, 2019). Ultimately, these examples highlight the instrumental role that data play in identifying pollution issues and presenting pathways to resolve them.


Kolominskas, C. and Sullivan, R., 2004, ‘Improving cleaner production through pollutant release and transfer register reporting processes’, Journal of Cleaner Production12(7), pp. 713-724 (

OECD, 2019, Uses of PRTR data and tools for their presentation, ENV/JM/MONO(2019)35, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris ( accessed 18 October 2022.

PBL, 2022, Decarbonisation options for the Dutch waste incineration industry, PBL (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency), The Hague ( accessed 18 October 2022.

Ricardo Energy and Environment, 2018, Ex-post assessment of costs and benefits from implementing BAT under the Industrial Emissions Directive ( accessed 18 October 2022.

Production Signal 2: Sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from shipping

Maritime transport is an essential element of global trade and the economy. In the EU, transport by sea carries 77% of external trade and 35% of intra-EU trade. EU ports handled close to 4 billion tonnes of goods in 2019, accounting for around half of all trade between the EU-27 and other countries. As with other activities, shipping has impacts on the environment and public health; specifically, it increases air pollution and water pollution events (e.g. oil spills) and creates waste that needs to be carefully disposed of.

Ship engines generate emissions including sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which can damage the marine environment and human health. The EU ‘Sulphur Directive’ (2016/802) limits the sulphur content of the fuels used by ships. Emissions models show that SOX emissions slightly increased from around 2015 to the end of 2019 (EMSA, 2022). Emissions then dropped steeply in 2020; this is largely attributed to the impact that new legislative measures, together with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, had on global shipping and trade patterns. At the regional level, there was a dramatic reduction in SOx emissions in 2015 in both the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. This reflects the impact of implementing sulphur emission control areas in these regions (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. EU and regional SOx total emissions (kg)

Source: EMSA, 2022

Click here for different chart formats and data

Model data for NOx show that overall, these emissions increased slightly at the European level until the end of 2019. The emission levels were highest in 2016 and 2019; this was reflected in the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, North Sea and Baltic Sea regional values. In the Black Sea, the trend was reversed. 



EMSA, 2022, ‘The EU Maritime Profile – environment’, European Maritime Safety Agency ( accessed 9 November 2022.

Production Signal 3: Safe and sustainable by design

Achieving zero pollution in production and consumption systems implies that chemicals, materials and products have to be safe and sustainable by design during their full life cycle. The EU chemicals strategy for sustainability aims to establish Europe as a frontrunner in producing and consuming chemicals that are safe and sustainable by design — a key step towards a non-toxic environment.

Ensuring that material cycles are non-toxic is key to scaling up the circular economy and securing consumer safety; this is because hazardous chemicals in waste are a major barrier to mechanical recycling (ChemSec, 2021a). In addition, circular material cycles that still include toxic waste create potential new pathways through which humans can be exposed to hazardous chemicals (HBM4EU, 2022).

Industry will be a key player in the production and use of safe and sustainable chemicals. Implementing approaches that are safe and sustainable by design entails assessing product performance against requirements for safety and sustainability during the design phase of product development. During this phase, product engineers have more flexibility to innovate to meet the performance objectives for safety and sustainability (EEA, 2021) — compared with evaluating them and attempting to implement change once product design is already finalised.

This approach aims to ensure that a range of safety and sustainability requirements are met throughout a product’s life cycle. Sustainability objectives include:

  • protecting citizens against hazardous chemicals;
  • transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050;
  • delivering a circular economy;
  • protecting nature and reversing the pollution and degradation of ecosystems.

To operationalise approaches to safe and sustainable by design, established methodologies and minimum performance requirements are needed. This would help ensure consistent actions across industrial sectors and the delivery of high-quality products that are both safe and sustainable by design.

Progress is under way. A recent report from the Joint Research Centre presents a framework for defining safe and sustainable by design criteria for chemicals and materials. The framework includes a methodology for identifying possible criteria — and potential mechanisms for implementing these (Caldeira et al., 2022). In tandem, the European Commission is running a multi-stakeholder process to define the criteria for chemicals and materials. Other stakeholders have also given their input, including those from the chemical industry (CEFIC, 2022) and the NGO community (ChemSec, 2021b)

An environment that enables change is essential to the uptake and implementation of safe and sustainable by design approaches across industry. Under the chemicals strategy for sustainability, the European Commission is financially supporting the development, commercialisation, deployment and uptake of safe and sustainable by design substances, materials and products. At the same time, this helps establish key performance indicators to measure progress. Moreover, a high-level roundtable with representatives from industry, science and civil society has been established to generate ideas for boosting the development and uptake of innovative, safe and sustainable chemicals across sectors.



Caldeira C., et al., Safe and sustainable by design chemicals and materials — framework for the definition of criteria and evaluation procedure for chemicals and materials, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg ( accessed 18 October 2022.

CEFIC, 2022, Safe and sustainable by design: a transformative power, European Chemical Industry Council ( accessed 14 September 2022.

ChemSec, 2021a, What goes around, International Chemical Secretariat ( accessed 18 October 2022.

ChemSec, 2021b, Our view on Safe and Sustainable by Design criteria, International Chemical Secretariat ( accessed 20 November 2022.

EEA, 2021, ‘Designing safe and sustainable products requires a new approach for chemicals’, European Environment Agency ( accessed 10 November 2022.

HBM4EU, 2022, Chemicals in a circular economy: using human biomonitoring to understand potential new exposures ( accessed 18 October 2022.

Cover image source: © Mateo Puđa, Well with Nature /EEA


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