A PRTR is an environmental database or inventory of potentially hazardous chemical substances and/or pollutants released to air, water and soil and transferred off-site for treatment or disposal. According to the OECD Council Recommendation [C(96)41/FINAL], as amended by [C(2003)87], the core elements of a PRTR system are:
- A listing of chemicals, groups of chemicals and other relevant pollutants that are released to the environment or transferred off-site;
- Integrated multi-media reporting of releases and transfers (to air, water and land);
- Reporting by source, covering point sources and non-point sources, where appropriate;
- Periodic reporting (preferably annually);
- Making data available to the public.
Some PRTRs also include estimates of releases from diffuse sources, such as agriculture and transport and from the end use of products. These data are compiled by environmental authorities. PRTR data may be presented geographically, either in a fixed form or interactively on Internet. PRTR data may be presented by industry sectors, by facility, by a chemical substance or groups of substances. Additional information is often provided to help better understand the PRTR data. National PRTRs may vary in terms of the hazardous chemicals and pollutants included, industry or business categories that must report and the types of releases. PRTR data are made available to the public in published documents, annual reports, on the Internet or other media.
A PRTR can be an important tool in the total environmental policy of a government encouraging reporters to reduce pollution and engendering broad public support for government environmental policies. Indeed, governments may wish to set forth long-term national environmental goals linked e.g. to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and its sustainable development goals and then use PRTR as a tool to examine objectively how well these goals are being met.
What are the benefits of a PRTR?
To derive the benefits of a PRTR, governments need clear and consistent answers to the following questions:
- Who is generating potentially harmful releases or transfers to various environmental media;
- What hazardous chemicals and/or pollutants are being released or transferred;
- How much is being released or transferred over a specific time period;
- To what media are these substances being released or transferred and, how much of each is going to air, water or land;
- What is the geographic distribution of the releases and/or transfers.
Once the information is correctly categorised in the PRTR system, the government authorities are in a position to track each release and transfer consistently over time. Authorities can then set priorities for reducing or even eliminating the most potentially damaging releases. One example of this is in the framework of integrated pollution prevention and control efforts undertaken to prevent or minimise the risk of these releases to humans and/or the environment.
The PRTR reporting process itself tends to promote pollution prevention by indicating to reporters, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises, the amounts of valuable material resources being released as hazardous chemicals or other pollutants and thus simply wasted. In countries having a PRTR system, this information has spurred firms to cut this wastage. It has resulted in avoiding costs, increasing efficiency and reducing environmental harm simultaneously.
The results of a PRTR can be instrumental in pin-pointing priority candidates for the introduction of technologies for cleaner production. Suppose, for example, that two facilities are engaged in similar activities using similar feedstocks and are producing similar outputs, but one of the two is reporting far greater releases of certain chemicals or pollutants. This can be a signal that cleaner production technology would be a good investment for the more polluting facility.
For a government, a PRTR can help achieve pollution prevention, lessening the burden of control regulations, which require a large bureaucracy to monitor and enforce. Wastes not generated do not require disposal facilities and water pollutants not created do not require wastewater treatment facilities. Since specific chemicals or classes of chemicals (alkanes, carcinogens, etc.) covered by a PRTR may differ in terms of inherent hazard, a high release/transfer total for a given chemical or pollutant may not always translate into high risk. Conversely, a chemical or pollutant having a lower release/transfer level may in reality pose a greater risk. This concept of hazard differentiation needs to be considered in the design of a PRTR, as well as how to convey such information to the public.
PRTR results provide local, regional, national and international information. With a PRTR system in place, local or regional governments can assess the status of local environments and can use PRTR results as one input for assessing risks to human health and the environment. The use of PRTR data as a key input for assessing such risks enables national authorities or international organisations to estimate and compare environmental problems on a consistent and common basis, e.g. by considering multiple pathways to exposure and movement through the environment of the hazardous chemicals and pollutants covered by the PRTR. In other words, PRTR results can be used as input for dispersion models in order to obtain estimates of environmental status as a function of time and place.
A PRTR can provide data about accidental releases such as spills or emissions arising from a fire at an industrial facility. Moreover, PRTR data can aid in debates about land-use planning and in licensing decisions for various types of potential sources of chemicals and pollutants ranging from giant facilities to small- and medium-sized firms. Also, an internationally compatible register system could be beneficial in setting and monitoring international goals and commitments. Sharing collected data can help countries maximise risk-reduction efforts.
Finally, the existence of a PRTR can serve as a major driving force for pollution reduction throughout many sectors of the economy. In fact, dissemination of PRTR data has led to a competition among generators of hazardous chemicals and/or pollutants to reduce their releases. After all, no one wants to be perceived by the general public as a wilful spoiler of the environment or contributor to possible adverse health effects.