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15 Biggest Polluting Industries in the World

16 February 2021

Our World Is Getting More and More Polluted With Each Passing Second. Following Industries Are the Biggest Culprits.

We could start this article by telling you how many tons of CO2 is going into the atmosphere every hour, or how much plastic goes into the ocean every minute. But when we hear numbers like these over and over again, without any frame of reference, they start to lose meaning. So let’s cut to the chase and look at the industries that pollute the world — and where possible, point out a few practical solutions.

Keep in mind, there’s no measurable way of comparing one industry with another when it comes to how much they pollute. Partly because there are such big overlaps between them — one industry relies on another, and you can’t tell where one ends and the other starts. That’s why this list isn’t in any particular order.

But we are choosing not one, but two industries that we think are the biggest polluters of them all. Of course, we’ll explain why we think that. And we’ll also save those ‘til last. 

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With that out of the way, let’s jump right into the article.

1

Agriculture

Farming serves one of our most basic needs, which means we can’t live without it. But with the world’s population rising, can the world handle our food needs? For the time being, probably yes, but with a big caveat — not when we’re eating as much meat as we are right now. 

Agriculture accounts for around 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And more than half of that comes from cattle production. And when we’re talking about raising cows, there are problems at every link of the chain.

From manufacturing fertilizers for cattle feed — to burning forests to make way for grazing land. It all means that gram for gram of protein, beef production takes up twenty times more land, and causes twenty times more carbon emissions than beans — and ten times more than chicken.

So, if you give up beef and go green, you’re doing the planet a big favor. And even replacing beef with chicken is a big improvement.   

2

Food Retail

This one’s not about growing food. We’re talking about how the companies package, transport, and sell — and in the process how food retail becomes one of the major industries that pollute. 

The amount of packaging isn’t only ginormous — a lot of it’s totally unnecessary too. Companies are using nearly a million tons of plastic in food retail every year. That goes into landfills, or oceans where it kills hundreds of thousands of marine animals. 

Solutions? You’ve heard most of them before. Use reusable shopping bags. Go to sustainable supermarkets that have no or very little packaging. And packaging aside, avoid wasting food — as that’s another huge problem. 

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3

Passenger Transport

This one accounts for a fifth of all CO2 emissions. And even though travel’s slowed down in the pandemic, the general trend is upwards. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of flights we made went up by 40%. 

Now, you’re probably thinking planes are the main culprit here. Get ready to be surprised. Air travel only accounts for only 16% of all this. Land-based travel pollutes a lot more. 

Either way, it’s still good to limit your plane journeys. Carpool. Take public transport. And go for an electric car, especially now they’re becoming so much more available.

4

Commercial Freight

The other side of transport — not carrying people, but carrying the stuff we buy. Over the pandemic we’ve all been ordering more online and getting it delivered to our homes. Whether that’s our dinner, or something that’s been flown half way across the world. It’s not that we weren’t already doing it — now we’ve just done it even more making commercial freight one of the top industries that pollute.

And of course, most commercial freight isn’t addressed to individuals but to companies. All told, commercial freight doesn’t pollute as much as passenger transport, but still a lot – around 40% of all CO2 emissions from transport.  

5

Tourism

According to carbonbrief.org, tourism is responsible for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, it’s true that a lot of that is included in other figures here — like passenger transport. But there are a whole load of other factors to remember when we’re thinking about how tourism pollutes. 

Like cheap, tacky plastic souvenirs that soon go into the trash — yep, there’s a load more plastic to clog up the oceans and landfills. And we all like to be spoiled in a plush hotel or restaurant. But a lot of food ends up getting wasted in restaurants. And when hotels wash our towels every day, that’s not exactly efficient energy use. And guess what, it all adds up to more pollution.

6

Construction 

Now to one of the kings of the industries that pollute. It ranks high in pretty much every kind of pollution imaginable. All the building sites around the world add up to 23% of air pollution. Harmful dust ends up in tap water and accounts for 40% of drinking water pollution. And the construction industry produces around half the garbage that ends up in landfills.

Let’s also give a mention to the world’s most ignored kind of pollution — noise pollution. You don’t need a PhD in environmental sciences to figure that construction is a huge offender on that one too. 

And we haven’t even got to the raw materials it uses — around half of all natural resource extraction, a sixth of global freshwater, a quarter of wood. And it produces a quarter of global waste. 

7

Natural Gas

We’ve often thought of natural gas as the friendlier cousin of the other fossil fuels. Which is kind of true. But given the company it’s in, it’s really not saying much. 

In 2019, natural gas was responsible for 8 billion tons of CO2 that went into the atmosphere. That’s about a fifth of the total carbon emissions. And includes half a billion tons from flaring, when gas gets burned during processing. 

And talking of the other fossil fuels, coal and gas — don’t worry, we’re getting to those later.

8

Fashion

Like any industry, fashion uses energy to make stuff. And a lot of it. The clothes we wear use enough energy to account for 10% of all carbon emissions. But what pushes fashion even further up the list of polluters, is the amount of clothes that get dumped every year. 

Of course, the world of fashion has a lot of different types of players involved, and there’s one section of it we can really point our fingers at — fast fashion. That’s because fast fashion items are made of cheap material that doesn’t last long. Worse still, they often contain harmful microplastics. And tend to be made in lower-income countries with worse environmental regulation, where factories are more likely to run on coal and gas. 

And when all that dirty energy’s gone into making fast fashion, 85% of textiles get dumped each year. What can we do? Don’t be fooled by fast fashion. At Alux, we’ve often said — buy quality, that will last, and won’t look passé in a year or two. Also; buy second-hand clothes and recycle yours instead of binning them. This is a way to pull fashion out of the list of the industries that pollute.

If you want guidance about recycling and styling your clothes according to different seasons, check out 10 Tips On How To Transition Clothes From Summer To Fall

9

Chemical Manufacturing

Every kind of manufacturing uses energy, and a lot of it dirty energy. But it just happens that the chemicals industry is the biggest industrial user of energy by a long way. That means that the cleaning products we use at home, pesticides farmers put on their crops, or construction materials builders use, all took their toll on the environment even before they got used.

And besides that, the chemicals industry releases toxic substances into the environment, which contaminate the water, soil, air and food. Worst of all in lower income countries, where there are fewer regulations. 

10

The Plastics Industry

When it comes to plastic, over 8 billion tons of it have been produced, and only 9% of that has been recycled. We’re sure you’ve seen the photos of clogged up beaches or islands of it in the middle of the ocean, killing sea animals from small fish to whales — so no need to explain how plastics industry is one of the industries that pollute the planet massively. 

The good news is that it will decompose. The bad news — it will take it a few hundred years to do that. So a good solution is the same for a lot of environmental problems — consume less. Especially when it contains plastic, and if you know it is going to end up in the trash any time soon. And reuse and recycle as much as possible. 

11

Waste Management

Here are a couple of figures for you. The average American produces around a ton of garbage each year. Which means, there’s a big market in getting rid of it. So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the global waste management industry is currently worth $2 trillion. 

And to be fair, when you think about how much waste they have to deal with, doing it in a way that’s clean is an impossible job. Still when you look at the facts, they sure make it onto the list of most polluting industries. 

We’ve already talked about plastic in the seas. What about garbage in landfill sites? That’s where about half of our trash ends up. And when harmful chemicals come out of it, they end up poisoning the land around it, and the groundwater, and creates health problems from asthma to cancer and birth defects. 

12

Mining

Metals and minerals that come from the ground may be useful and even pretty, but it’s a fact that getting them out of the ground doesn’t do any favors to the natural surroundings where you can find them. 

And it’s not just a case of ruining the view. Mining can lead to a whole load of problems, like soil erosion and sinkholes. Destruction of forests — yep, that’s bad news for carbon emissions, and for biodiversity. As well as harmful substances like arsenic, mercury and sulphuric acid getting into the soil, and the water beneath it, which can end up in people’s faucets. And kill wildlife and destroy the ecosystems there.

13

Technology

We’re talking about a huge sector — and it’s true that this one’s very two-edged. We’ve got to give the tech industry credit for revolutionising energy with solar power and other renewables. And it’s giving us ways to recycle plastics and solutions to plenty of other environmental problems.

But there are serious downsides too. Like the amount of energy tech products use. Currently, around 3% of the world’s electricity goes into powering our servers and charging our devices. That figure’s going up each year — and for as long as the world still relies on fossil fuels, it’s a problem. 

On top of that, phones and computers use rare minerals that cause environmental destruction when they’re mined — like coltan, a metallic ore mined mostly in Central Africa, polluting lakes and rivers, and that we need to make phones, tablets and computers. 

So, we’re getting towards the end of the list. Remember, this isn’t a countdown, but there are two industries that we think are by far the worst polluters — and we’ve saved them for last, in reverse order.

The second worst polluter is —

14

Oil

No surprises here to see this near the top of the list. It’s a fact that oil one of the giant industries that pollute the world. As well as being behind climate change, oil companies pollute areas where they drill, and they pollute the world’s seas and oceans through oil spillages. In 2020, there as a thousand tons of oil spilling worldwide. 

But the biggest reason for oil being so close to the top of the list is the amount of carbon dioxide it sends into the atmosphere. Currently, 12.25 billion tons – 34% of the world’s carbon emissions.

But as bad a rap as oil gets — which it is earning with commitment — it’s still not the world’s number one polluter. That dubious honour goes to …

15

Coal

Finally, we’ve come to the worst of the worst. The global industry that contributes more to global warming than any other. Coal.

It emits more CO2 than any other fossil fuel when we burn it. It’s The biggest contributor to CO2 in the atmosphere. As well as producing methane, a greenhouse gas that has 25 times more global warming potential than CO2.

Even though a lot of countries are phasing it out, 27% of the world’s energy supply comes from coal. In places where companies burn coal, it causes smog, which leads to serious health conditions from respiratory problems to heart diseases. This is a big concern in China, which still uses coal for around 60%of its energy, as well as other countries including India and Poland. 

And yes, coal does release more CO2 into the atmosphere than oil —14.62 billion tons, or 40% of all CO2 emission. Which is why we put it at the top of this list. 

Question:

Aluxers, we’ve already mentioned a few things that we can do to reduce pollution. What other ideas do you have to do our bit to stop polluting?