Environmental Problems and their Effects

Our planet is plagued by environmental problems that deplete natural resources and strain livelihoods, many of which are exacerbated by poor industrial practices. If left unchecked, environmental problems negatively impact businesses both directly, as in supply chain disruptions, and indirectly, as in health hazards that lead to loss of man-hours and efficiency. Following are some common environmental problems that businesses need to address to ensure sustainability and long-term financial viability.


Pollution is one of the world’s biggest environmental problems, as it tends to be a typical byproduct of modern life. Air pollution, for instance, is the result of fossil fuel combustion, as well as various gases and toxins released by industries and factories.

Below are the most common air pollutants today, as well as a discussion of their source processes and effects on health:

  • Ozone – A colorless, odorless gas generated when nitrogen oxides (found in motor vehicles and industrial machinery) and volatile organic compounds (found in gasoline, paints, inks and solvents) are exposed to sunlight. Inhaling ozone can trigger health problems including chest pain, cough, throat irritation and congestion, bronchitis, asthma and emphysema.
  • Carbon monoxide – A poisonous gas produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. When inhaled, carbon monoxide reduces the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide can cause death. Aside from being highly toxic, carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, therefore often referred to as the “silent killer”.
  • Nitrogen dioxide – A highly reactive gas formed when fuel is burned at high temperatures (such as in motor vehicle exhaust, electric utilities and industrial boilers). Nitrogen dioxide reacts with water and oxygen to make nitric acid, one of the main components of acid rain. Nitrogen dioxide can irritate the lungs and increase susceptibility to respiratory ailments.
  • Particulate matter – Very small solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air. Short-term exposure to particulate matter can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, as well as heart and lung ailments. Prolonged exposure can lead to hospital admissions and premature death due to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
  • Sulfur dioxide – A highly reactive and pungent-smelling gas formed by the incineration of fossil fuel at industrial facilities such as power plants. Other processes that generate sulfur dioxide are sea spray and the decomposition of organic matter. Inhalation of sulfur dioxide can cause wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath, as well as heart and lung ailments.
  • Lead – A common ingredient in many manufactured products. Gasoline and paint are the major sources of lead emissions. Exposure to lead can cause kidney disease, nervous system disorders, mental retardation, learning disabilities, miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and death.

Pollution and modern living seemingly go hand-in-hand, but the costs of air pollution can no longer be ignored. According to a 2012 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), air pollution cost the Chinese economy $112 billion in 2005. In Hong Kong, medical bills and productivity loss due to air pollution amounted to HK$39.4 billion in 2013.

The costs of pollution go beyond medical bills and loss of productivity. Heavily polluted areas make it difficult for companies located there to hire and retain workers, forcing them to pay higher wages to attract and keep employees. In addition, unchecked pollution can temper investors’ interest. To produce their products safely, companies in heavily polluted areas may need to close shop and move their operations to less polluted locations.

Waste Disposal

As populations and industries grow, so does the problem of proper waste disposal. Communities accumulate so much garbage that properly disposing of it has become increasingly difficult. Solid garbage, for example, is usually buried in landfill sites or incinerated, which is extremely harmful to the environment. Decomposing garbage may attract vermin, give off a foul smell or leach into groundwater. The smoke given off by burning garbage contributes to air pollution.

Certain byproducts of the manufacturing process amplify the need for improved waste disposal. Efficiency is sometimes pursued at the expense of environmental sustainability. To produce as much as possible in the most cost-effective manner, manufacturers may adopt practices that appear to be cheap, but are actually resource-intensive in the long run. These practices generate byproducts that cannot be reused and must be disposed of.

A good starting point towards the zero-waste ideal is the circular economy model associated with other concepts such as the “cradle to cradle” design and industrial ecology. The idea here is that instead of products eventually being buried or burned, as in most linear models of production, their parts are designed from the beginning to be re-used and processed for re-entry into the production cycle.

For example, Google's Project Ara initiative addressed the challenge of outdated mobile phones by reinventing consumers’ smartphone usage. By breaking down a phone into replaceable parts that can be assembled and customized according to user requirements, consumers easily alter their phone with simple skills and tools. Phone repair is done more easily and inexpensively by replacing only what is broken instead of the entire phone. Google found a way to maximize a phone's lifetime usage and reduce the need to use new resources for new phones, while minimizing the amount of its generated e-waste.

In Europe, Philips has 22 service organizations that are collecting 40% of lamps that contain mercury. The company has a recycling rate greater than 95% in the market. Philips also started to sell lighting as a service to enhance the collection of their lighting equipment. They aim to reach more customers as the company retains ownership of the lighting equipment so customers don’t have to pay for lighting upfront. In addition, Philips guarantees comprehensive environmental management pertaining to the recycling of their lighting equipment.

Climate Change

In his encyclical Laudato si, Pope Francis urged action on climate change, warning that climate change is real and a problem that we can no longer afford to ignore:

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

Environmental Problems and Issues

Environmental Problems List

Environmental Problems with Solutions

Environmental Problems in American

Environmental Problems in the Community