Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers: A crosscutting international instrument for advancing sustainability

The current global ecological situation is perilous to humankind. Accumulated releases of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are causing climate change and eco-toxic releases are significantly impacting the environment and human health. Global eco-systems and resources are in decline. There is a tool called the Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs) which could provide policymakers with key indicators for measuring progress in advancing sustainability and a green economy. Since its entry into force in 2009, the Kiev PRTR Protocol offers a solid legal framework for enhancing public access to information and for pursuing international cooperation on PRTRs.

The Irish PRTR created by the Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is available at http://prtr.epa.ie/ and Ireland’s PRTR interactive map is available at http://prtr.epa.ie/map/default.aspx

1. Introduction – environmental degradation caused by industrial processes

Modern industrial society alters the biosphere and causes environmental degradation in three significant ways:

1. Society mines and disperses materials faster than they are returned to the Earth’s crust. Industrial societies have extracted pollutants that were previously stored for millions of years as fuel and mineral deposits.  The extraction and combustion of fossil fuel deposits, such as oil and coal, results in GHG emissions, which contribute to climate change. Many of the mineral deposits are toxic for example mercury and cadmium, basic elements that cannot be broken down into less toxic components.

2. Society produces substances faster than they can be broken down by natural processes and many manmade substances cannot be broken down at all. The chemical industry has created tens of thousands of new man made chemical compounds that are released and leak out into natural systems. The Earth is a critical closed system with respect to matter and in which matter disperses. A number of these chemical substances being released are damaging to humans and to environmental systems. Industrial society is producing persistent artificial compounds and the global eco-system had not previously confronted these substances throughout billions years of evolution. Natural evolution has not equipped humans to deal with these new artificial substances and the significant health risks associated with them. Many of the substances are organic compounds of chlorine, fluorine and bromine and include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), dioxins, and chlorofluorocarbons. Man made chemicals such as PCBs that do not break down, accumulate in the body and stay there. The term persistent organic pollutants (POPs) refers to substances that are not part of nature, that interfere with organic systems and are not degraded by physical, chemical or biological processes. Even in low concentration POPs can harm humans. The slow movement of pollutants, the accumulation of toxins in the food chain, the emission of chemicals from products and waste, and interactions between artificial and natural compounds can result in uncontrolled environment degradation and significant public health risks. Exposure to chemical pollutants has been documented as playing a major role in determining children’s health. (US EPA, 2002b).

3. Society depletes or degrades resources faster than they are regenerated (for example, through deforestation and overfishing), or by other forms of physical degradation of ecosystems (for example, paving over fertile land or causing soil erosion). As a consequence of the physical destruction of the environment the restorative capacity of eco-systems is being reduced, while the outputs of industrial wastes are increasing. (Broman et al., 2000).

This article describes how Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs) significantly address the points 1. and 2. by offering an established, proven multi-stakeholder mechanism capable of providing periodic and reliable data on releases and transfers of pollutants, including GHGs, heavy metals and toxic chemical compounds. The Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), is the first legally binding international agreement on PRTRs and can therefore be regarded as a cross cutting instrument for addressing climate change, heavy metals and eco-toxic chemicals management.

2. Toward ecological sustainability

The conclusion is unavoidable we must transform our industries and align societal processes so that they function in harmony with scientific conditions for sustainability in the biosphere.  To do this we must ensure:

1. Nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust.

2. Nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of toxic substances produced by society.

3. Nature must not be subject to impoverishing physical manipulation or over-harvesting.(Web-1) (Web-2)

Material flows must be such that the concentrations of GHGs, heavy metals and toxic chemical compounds produced by society do not systematically increase in the whole biosphere. (Broman et al, 2000). Currently the volume of GHGs, heavy metals and toxic chemical compounds produced by society outweighs nature’s capacity to absorb those materials, see diagram below. Eco-innovation can have the following aims: societal biological flows of matter must be incorporated into those of ecosystems; societal technical nutrient flows of matter must be kept separate from eco systems or societal technical nutrient flows of matter must be gradually reduced in order to enable ecosystems to process them. The volume of natural eco systems should therefore be increased (e.g. planting trees; establishing protected zones).

Balancing material flows with nature’s capacity. The balance of material flows can be influenced upstream by choices regarding designs and production volumes, by societal competence in safeguarding toxic substances and by international cooperation under legally binding international instruments, such as the PRTR Protocol, and the other agreements, such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal.

3. PRTRs for monitoring and publishing data on polluting material flows

In addressing the above challenges the role of scientific monitoring of pollutants and the publication of relevant data on these releases is critical. Information about the amounts of hazardous chemical substances, GHGs and pollutants released to air, water and soil, and transferred off-site for treatment or disposal from industrial facilities and other sources arising from anthropogenic activities is available through national pollutant inventories – PRTRs. The PRTR Protocol to the Aarhus Convention, is the first legally binding international instrument on PRTRs with the objective “to enhance public access to information through the establishment of coherent, nationwide PRTRs”. (Web-3)

What is a PRTR? A PRTR is a publicly accessible register providing periodic and reliable data on emissions and transfers of pollutants, including greenhouse gases (GHGs), heavy metals and toxic chemical compounds.

At the national level, each individual shall have “appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities”, and that States shall “facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available”.

Releases and transfers of at least 86 pollutants are covered by the Protocol, including greenhouse gases, acid rain pollutants, ozone-depleting substances, heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, and certain carcinogens, such as dioxins. Data from point sources and diffuse sources can be entered into the register and is typically gathered and reported annually. Parties to the Protocol are required to work towards convergence between PRTR systems.

Although regulating information on pollution, rather than pollution directly, the Protocol is expected to exert a significant downward pressure on levels of pollution, as no company will want to be identified as among the biggest polluters. 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 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.

As of 18 August 2011, there were 27 Parties to the PRTR Protocol.  Many more countries are in the process of developing their national PRTR. The Protocol requires each Party to establish a PRTR which is:

  • publicly accessible through Internet, free of charge
  • searchable according to separate parameters (facility, pollutant, location, medium, etc.)
  • user-friendly in its structure and provide links to other relevant registers,
  • presents standardized, timely data on a structured, computerized database;
  • covers releases and transfers of at least 86 pollutants covered by the Protocol,
  • covers releases and transfers from certain types of major point sources
    (e.g. thermal power stations, mining and metallurgical industries, chemical plants, waste and waste- water treatment plants, paper and timber industries);
  • accommodates available data on releases from diffuse sources (e.g. transport and agriculture);
  • has limited confidentiality provisions; and
  • allows for public participation in its development and modification. (Web-4)

PRTRs perform major functions, for example:

  • regularly gather data for major pollutants;
  • reduce costs to government and industry from a coordinated reporting system;
  • hold and manipulate data to allow updating/tracking of releases;
  • provide a portal for information to civil society;
  • provide comprehensive data for reporting on releases and tracking of hazardous chemicals and GHGs and for identifying priority chemicals management areas in national action plans;
  • trigger cleaner production initiatives in industries.

4. PRTRs benefit Governments by enabling Governments:

  • to review the compliance of local facilities with their permit conditions;
  • to track the release of hazardous chemical substances and pollution trends over time;
  • to examine progress in reducing emissions;
  • to monitor compliance and national progress with international commitments;
  • to set priorities for reducing or even eliminating the most potentially damaging releases;
  • to identify priority industrial sectors for eco-innovation;
  • to use PRTR results as one input for assessing risks to human health and the environment;
  • and to help achieve pollution prevention, lessening the burden of control regulations, which require a large bureaucracy to monitor and enforce.

PRTRs also reduce costs to Government and industry by providing a coordinated reporting system.

5. PRTRs benefit industry and eco-innovation. PRTRs benefit both management and workers, through stimulating improved environmental management. For facilities, the exercise of monitoring or estimating pollution levels, as well as their mandatory publication, can encourage efforts to improve efficiency and reduce pollution levels and associated costs. The existence of a PRTR can serve as a major driving force for pollution reduction and eco-innovation throughout many sectors of the economy. PRTR data listing specific industrial processes that produce large quantities of both GHGs and eco-toxic substances helps to identify potential sectors and facilities that may be starting points or priorities for the introduction of technologies for cleaner production, eco-innovation and synergistic processes to reduce co-emissions of both GHGs and eco-toxic substances. Dissemination of PRTR data also enables similar industries to benchmark their environmental performance with other companies in the sector free online pokies with free spins and to reduce releases, thereby saving money.

6. PRTRs serve the general public, citizens’ organizations, researchers and academics by providing access to information on local, regional or national pollution. PRTR data is accessible via the Internet and searchable according to individual facility, owner/operator, type of pollutant and type of activity and environmental medium (air, water, land). The public can use PRTR information to learn about releases and transfers occurring in their communities and to become better informed about the environmental performance of individual facilities and economic sectors. Health professionals can use the information in public health decisions. PRTRs can be a valuable tool for environmental education. Researchers and academics can use PRTR data for modelling or other studies, and the financial sector for evaluating investment proposals or for considering insurance or sustainability issues.

7. International policy frameworks and activities for PRTR development

PRTRs are mentioned numerous times in the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) Global Plan of Action, adopted at the first session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (Dubai, 4–6 February 2006). Specifically PRTRs are mentioned under work areas addressing knowledge and information, work areas addressing governance, and works areas addressing capacity-building and technical co-operation. In addition, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants endorses the multi-stakeholder approach of PRTRs as an effective mechanism in achieving goals of the Convention.

International cooperation of activities in PRTRs has been extensive through groups such as the OECD Task Force on PRTRs, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, and the Working Group on PRTR Protocol to the Aarhus Convention established by the first Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol (Geneva, 19-22 April 2010).

Furthermore, the International PRTR Coordinating Group has been set up to improve coordination between international organizations, governments and other interested parties in their ongoing and planned efforts related to the further development and implementation of PRTR systems.

8. PRTRs as an informational tool for monitoring GHGs

The principles underlying the Aarhus Convention and its PRTR Protocol have special relevance to the achievement of the objective established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty. The UNFCCC sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenge posed by climate change. The Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC establishes legally binding commitments for the reduction of four greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride) and two groups of gases hydro-fluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Parties to the UNFCCC treaty and its Kyoto Protocol annually submit to the Secretariat of the UNFCCC their inventory of national greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of CO2, CH4, N2O, SF6, HFCs and PFCs.

In some countries, the GHG inventory is a comprehensive top-down national assessment of national GHG emissions, and they use top-down national energy data and other national statistics (e.g. on agriculture) to prepare their annual reports. To achieve the goal of comprehensive national emissions coverage for reporting under the UNFCCC, most GHG emissions are calculated via activity data from national-level databases, statistics, and surveys. The use of the aggregated national data means that the national emissions estimates are not broken-down at the geographic or facility level.

The PRTR Protocol, by contrast, requires Governments to collect annual reports on major GHG emissions (among other pollutants) by industry on a facility-by-facility basis and to share this information with the public. All of the substances identified in the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol are also contained in the PRTR Protocol’s Annex II list of threshold pollutants.

National registers created under the PRTR Protocol can help countries meet the objectives of the Climate Change Convention in three ways:

  • where GHG emissions data are directly incorporated into a national register, the data can be used to supplement information needed to calculate the national GHG inventory;
  • PRTR GHG data provided on a facility-by-facility basis can be used to cross-check data derived from other sources, and help identify data gaps;
  • GHG data incorporated into a national PRTR can raise public awareness of major emitters of GHGs, and contribute to the demand for improved environmental performance from industry and other sources.

9. Eco-toxic thresholds and the pre-cautionary principle

The concentrations of substances that can be accepted in environmental systems without putting human health and economy at risk in the longer term depend on properties such as eco-toxicity and bio-accumulation.

Annex I of the PRTR Protocol (Web-3) lists Employee thresholds referred to in Article 7  paragraph 1(b) of the Protocol. Annex II of the Protocol lists thresholds referred to in article 7, paragraph 1 of the Protocol for releases to air; to water; to land; for off-site transfers of pollutants; and for manufacture, process or use. Where a threshold is exceeded reporting is required with respect to the facility in question, for those parties that have opted for a system of reporting pursuant to article 7, paragraph 1.

It can be difficult to foresee what concentrations will lead to unacceptable consequences. Due to delay mechanisms the ultimate consequences of the increasing concentrations of the toxic substances in the biosphere are difficult to predict. The pre-cautionary principle is of relevance where there is uncertainty of ecological limits/eco-toxic thresholds.

10. Synergistic solutions that address both GHGs and eco-toxic substances

By identifying through access to reported information, PRTRs help to identify industrial processes (or hotspots) that contribute most significantly to both climate change and eco-toxicity. Utilizing PRTR data to identify the specific industrial processes that produce large quantities of both GHGs and eco-toxic substances helps to identify potential sectors and facilities that may be starting points or priorities for synergistic processes to reduce co-emissions of both GHGs and eco-toxic substances. Eco-innovations, production volumes and societal competence in safeguarding these substances are relevant in reducing concentrations of GHGs and toxic chemical compounds produced by society.

11. Applying PRTRs to track mercury releases and transfers

PRTRs provide information on primary and to a lesser extent secondary anthropogenic emissions of mercury, including fossil fuel combustion installations, non-ferrous metal, cement and pig iron and steel production, waste incineration, primary mercury production, crematoria and mining operations.  Health effects from high levels of exposure to elemental mercury includes damage to the stomach and large intestine and permanent damage to the brain and kidneys.

PRTR data can help identify potential areas and facilities that could be important as examples for reducing mercury releases. Mercury is a natural constituent of coal and there are therefore co-benefits of emissions mitigation measures involving mercury from any sectors that utilise coal to generate energy.

UNEP Governing Council Decision 25/5 (III) specifically requests that an International Negotiating Committee (INC) be convened with the mandate of developing a global legally binding instrument on mercury. The INC should consider inter alia provisions to reduce atmospheric emissions of mercury, to address compliance, to address mercury containing waste and to increase knowledge through awareness raising and scientific information exchange. The INC should also consider prioritization of the various sources of mercury releases for action, as well as the need to achieve cooperation and coordination with relevant provisions contained in other international agreements and processes. Specifically looking to a global legally-binding instrument on mercury, PRTRs offer the potential to:

  • enhance and consolidate national mercury emissions inventories;
  • provide reliable information on anthropogenic mercury emissions at the facility, state (regional) and national level;
  • inform on location and quantities (measured and/or estimated) of mercury used and mercury wastes;
  • identify hot-spots on mercury emissions;
  • provide information on emissions trends over the years;
  • facilitate access to updated information on mercury emissions;
  • facilitate stakeholders involvement through the inherent participation of stakeholders in the PRTR development process;
  • assist countries to comply with foreseen reporting requirements of the treaty; and
  • serve as a practical basis from which the effectiveness of voluntary and regulatory actions intended to decrease mercury emissions can be assessed.

PRTRs do not address natural mercury sources and currently do not comprehensively capture mercury emissions arising from product use and disposal, although efforts have begun on the issue of hazardous substance releases during product use.

With respect to transfers, a fundamental PRTR function is to provide information on movements of mercury from one holder to another, such as from a facility generating mercury wastes to one designed for long-term waste storage.    PRTRs can be foreseen as an integral part of the eventual mercury-emissions reporting and tracking which would be an anticipated element of a global instrument on mercury. (Web-5)

12. PRTR is an indicator for sustainability and the success of a green economy

National PRTR systems monitor and publish data on pollutant releases and transfers for substances of critical importance in sustainable development, such as GHGs, heavy metals and eco-toxic chemical compounds. The PRTR data therefore could be utilized as a science-based indicator for measuring the success of sustainability and a ‘green economy’.

Published data on material flows that are in violation of scientific conditions for ecological sustainability are key indicators for a ‘green economy’ to be truly ecologically sustainable. An indicator set for a “green economy” should be aligned with scientific data on environmental sustainability as a sustainable environment and resource base is required for a sustainable economy. Governments, academia, research institutions, the public, and business driving eco-innovation can utilize the PRTR as a common indicator to inform their strategic goals.

The PRTR Protocol facilitates and requires development toward compatible PRTR systems in different countries. PRTR data are therefore a valid option for inclusion in an indicator set for measuring the success of those ‘green economies’.

Parties to the Protocol on PRTRs recognize that the objectives of an integrated approach to minimizing pollution and the amount of waste resulting from the operation of industrial installations and other sources are to achieve a high level of protection for the environment as a whole, to move towards sustainable and environmentally sound development and to protect the health of present and future generations.

The author Mark Keenan is an Irish environmentalist and Sustainability Consultant. He has worked with the Sustainable Development Council, Ireland and has conducted postgraduate studies in Sustainable Development and Climate Change, and PhD research in National Sustainability Strategy.


Broman G., Holmberg J., and Robèrt, K-H. (2000). Simplicity Without Reduction – Thinking Upstream Towards the Sustainable Society. Interfaces: International Journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. 30(3).

US EPA. (2002b). Priority PBTs; Mercury and Compounds. Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic Chemical program. Office of Pollution Prevention. Available at http://epa.gov/pbt/mercury.htm

Web-1: http://www.sos2006.jp/english/rsbs_summary_e/ScienceOnSustainability2006.pdf, consulted 5 March. 2012.

Web-2: http://www.naturalstep.org/~natural/the-system-conditions, consulted 5 March. 2012.

Web-3: http://www.unece.org/env/pp/prtr/docs/prtrtext.html, consulted 5 March. 2012.

Web-4: http://www.unece.org/env/pp/prtr.guidancedev.html, consulted 5 March. 2012.

Web-5: http://www.chem.unep.ch/mercury/WGprep.1/Documents/k10_2%29/English/WG_Prep_1_INF2_PRTRs.doc, consulted 5 March. 2012.

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2 Responses to Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers: A crosscutting international instrument for advancing sustainability

  1. Barry McMullin says:

    Nice piece. One small technical clarification. You say: “The Earth is a critical closed system in which matter disperses according to the second law of thermodynamics…” which is not actually correct. Firstly, the second law is strictly concerned with the disposition of “entropy” not matter (though yes, the two are generally related); but more importantly, in thermodynamic terms, the Earth is properly an “open” system, as there is a continuous flow of energy through it, and this maintains it far from thermodynamic equilibrium. As such, the second law of thermodynamics cannot be usefully applied to the Earth (except in a very vague, metaphorical sense; but even then, such a metaphor would probably be so strained as to be actually misleading…).

    Of course, it remains true that the Earth is, for all practical purposes, *materially* closed, and this is really the point that is essential for your discussion. So I’m not at all commenting on your conclusions here – it’s just that the reference to the second law is (I think) a slightly distracting red herring.

  2. Mark Keenan says:

    Thank you very much for your comment Professor McMullin. Yes the point I was making is that the earth is a closed system with respect to matter – as you say it is “materially closed” and this is the point that is essential to the discussion. I will delete the words “according to the second law of thermodynamics” to ensure there is no distraction in relation to this. I welcome your expert review and all input to improve the quality of the article. Best regards Mark

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