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Which Industries Pollute the Most?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Almost all industries generate some level of pollution, either directly or indirectly, but some industries are particularly famous for the high levels of pollution which they generate. Because pollution standards and statistics are different around the world, it is difficult to pin down the top polluters worldwide, but it is possible to compile a list of likely suspects. Many of these industries have been targeted through government and citizen initiatives and asked to clean up their act.

Several different kinds of pollution can be generated by various industries. Many people think of air pollution when they hear the world “pollute.” Air pollution involves the release of chemicals and particulates into the air, and it can cause problems varying from difficulty breathing to contamination of crops. Water pollution involves the release of pollutants into the water, while soil pollution occurs when pollutants penetrate the soil.

Chemical manufacturing generates a great deal of pollution. Fertilizer companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and companies which manufacture pesticides all pollute copiously around the world. In addition to generating pollution at their factories, many of these industries cause indirect pollution when their products are not managed safely, as for example when people flush antibiotics, or when fertilizer runoff enters a waterway.

The manufacturing and processing of metals, cement, and paper is also a major culprit in global pollution. These industries pollute both the air and water in many regions of the world, and they cause environmental degradation by logging and mining. Mining can cause additional pollution issues, as harsh chemicals are often used to process materials at mines, and these chemicals often wind up in the environment.

Oil refining is another major source of pollution, and industries which rely on fossil fuel also pollute, including coal fired power plants, airlines, and the automobile industry. Some consumer goods such as leather and sugar are associated with high levels of pollution due to the way in which they are processed and manufactured. The construction and waste management industries generate a number of pollutants as well, ranging from particulates at construction sites to biohazards released into the air and water at waste management facilities.

So-called “factory farming” has also been fingered as an industry which is known to pollute. Farm animals generate a great deal of methane, especially when they are raised in high volume, and their excretions are also a potential source of pollution. When containment facilities for manure burst or fail, pollutants can be released on a large scale into the surrounding environment.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Shfire — On Mar 29, 2012

We have designed billions of inventions to assist our living but with no consideration of their effects on nature. Even though we know there is an effect, we still insist in marketing it for some personal reason.

If we look at a simple invention, like a bulb, the engineers spend a lot of time thinking how to make it brighter, and use less power, and how to sell more units as a marketing strategy, etc. But we hardly have seen an invention has an environmental friendly disposal plan or design included in it.

We are not trained in a science to invent something with taking into consideration how the invention will be disposed of at the end of its use. Check the user's manuals of products; there’s nothing on a disposal plan. Thus the waste management and pollution will always be an issue.

I used to wonder about why the refinement achieved in our automobile engines is far greater than the toxic gases released from the exhaust pipes. How many people whom we know purchase an item and ask how the item will be disposed of? We will only think about it later or leave it to others to handle it. Maybe if we consider this, we would not purchase anything except food products (since the disposal happens in the stomach) since we didn't know what would be the consequences.

Inventors and engineers should have a strong sense of what materials are used in their inventions, especially the recovery period of the said material and the disposal plan to understand the implications to the environment. With this I think we will be living with products which are environmental friendly. None of the natural things pollute. Pollution from natural disaster is beyond our control and nature has its way to balance the ecosystems.

By anon255886 — On Mar 19, 2012

@Leonidas - "I think that even recycling can go too far"?

Have a good think about that. We live on a globe, it is measurable, and has been measured. There's only so much of it, it's finite.

It's a closed system, everything we have, will ever have is here, on the planet. The only home we have is being slowly stripped and destroyed by our activities.

Sure, you don't see the evidence, but then you probably live in a city where rubbish is picked up and removed to another place. You never see the effects it has because you're kept at a distance.

The worst pollutants from industry are shipped (largely) away from your country to poorer countries with much slacker human rights laws that makes it cheap to employ labor to process the muck we create.

There's no smoke without fire. You don't think it's so bad, but I bet you don't actually go and check what you believe.

By anon162082 — On Mar 22, 2011

i think it is all a lot of bogus. sure humans make a lot of pollution, but it is proven by scientists that a single volcano produces as much pollution as humans do over about two thousand years. this does not mean that we can pollute as much as possible, but it also doesn't mean that we we have to make a big deal out of pollution.

By Leonidas226 — On Feb 24, 2011


I think it is a big scare and a conspiracy theory. How do we know we can trust "science" and all those graphs about global warming? I think that even recycling can go too far. Everybody has bought into the whole thing.

By BioNerd — On Feb 22, 2011

"When the world was polluted, harmful chemicals affected the ozone of the skies, resulting in a warming of the climate and a shift in the ice shelves of the poles. This was due to mankind's obsession with money, which ultimately ruined them, as tidal shifts harmed their existence." Imagine the previous paragraph in a history book of the future. We don't have to let this happen to our children!

By Proxy414 — On Feb 19, 2011

The effects of pollution are everywhere: stunned growth in children, airborne sicknesses, short life, and many others. Species are driven to extinction, people are deformed by harmful skin diseases, and psychology can even be adversely affected. It is encouraging to see that more global legal restraints are being established for industrial pollution, which has occurred en masse in the past century. The world would be in a better place if it had never happened at all.

By JavaGhoul — On Feb 17, 2011

Many industries participate in environmental discrimination, allowing for water pollutants and toxic wastes to be dumped on poorer neighborhoods, with the belief that they will not have the money or the wherewithal to ever file a legal complaint against such illegal practices. This discrimination happens in the air and in the water, as well as in land dumps.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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