8 Worst Industries for the Environment and Pollution

8 Worst Industries for the Environment and Pollution

Dennis Kamprad

Read Time:14 Minutes


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Environmental degradation and global warming have remained a hot topic in recent times as we continue to see the impact of human activity on the ecosystem. The top five hottest years on record have all happened in the last four years, and plastic pollution remains a major problem. Many programs have been put together in recent times to help push for change and save the environment, but we’re yet to begin to scratch the surface.

The worst industries for the environment and pollution include Energy, Agriculture, Fashion, Transport, Food Retail, Construction, Technology, and Forestry. They account for most of the global pollution we see today and negatively impact the ecosystems they are exposed to.

The rest of the article will cover each of these industries in more detail, with possible solutions covering what we can do better.

What Is Pollution?

Pollution refers to the natural or artificial introduction of material (or energy) that can lead to a negative change in the environment and in the biological structure of living things in the area. Substances that cause pollution are known as pollutants. They can affect the balance of the ecosystem, even in the smallest amounts.

I also invite you to read more about the global impact of pollution at the end of this article.

What Are the Main Types of Pollution?

There are various forms of pollution, ranging from natural disasters like forest fires to artificial ones like pollution from factories and cars. These are divided into the following major distinctions:

  • Air Pollution
  • Water Pollution
  • Soil Pollution
  • Light Pollution
  • Noise Pollution

Other forms of pollution, like radiation and thermal pollution, are sometimes collapsed into the broader distinctions above.

While all forms of pollution are harmful to the environment, air, soil, and water pollution are the biggest threats combined. In 2017, more than five million people died across the world due to air pollution—which means it was responsible for 10% of the deaths recorded during the year.

On its part, water pollution is responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million children per year, as 14 billion lbs. (6.3bn kg) of plastics are dumped into the ocean each year, poisoning sea and ocean life.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the worst industries for pollution contribute to the assault on the environment by polluting the air, soil, water, or all three.

Below is a closer look at the top 8 worst industries for the environment and pollution.

The Energy Industry

The energy industry is causing a lot of harm to the environment because we rely on it for power and various activities in many aspects of life. From basic things like charging smartphones to powering passenger planes, the industry’s reach is massive. Even the production of important materials like medicine requires energy.

With the global population rising to new levels with each passing year, our energy needs are also increasing. These needs are met mostly by burning fossil fuels. In 2019, the world burnt 100.3 million barrels of oil per day. This is a 15% rise in the oil consumption levels of 2006, which stood at 85 million barrels per day.

With such an amount of fossil fuels burned daily, the atmosphere is left worse with each passing year as carbon emissions build. This is one of the main causes of global warming. However, the energy industry isn’t just causing air pollution and global warming.

The ocean is also feeling the impact of the oil-centric energy industry. Oil spills cause a lot of damage to the natural habitat of lots of water-dwelling species. Birds and animals that rely on the water environment are also put under a great deal of risk, driving some of them closer to extinction. In 2018, more than 116,000 tonnes of oil were spilled. Unfortunately, that incredible figure is one of the lowest on record since the first oil spillage records started in 1970.

What can we do about this?

  • We need to reduce dependence on fossil fuel as a source of energy and embrace renewable energy.
  • There should be more campaigns to hold big companies in the energy industry responsible and ensure they are exploring cleaner sources of energy for the end-users.
  • The efficiency of existing fossil fuel power stations should be improved using newer technologies, moving from higher-emitting power plants to lower-emitting options, and using less carbon-intensive fuel sources.
  • We need to cut down on power consumption in residential and commercial establishments by encouraging more people to understand why they should only use energy when necessary. This will reduce peak demand and lower the overall energy consumption of any given populace.
  • We need to explore nuclear power as a source of energy where renewable energy won’t suffice.
  • More energy providers need to deploy systems that can capture carbon dioxide during fossil fuel consumption, stopping it from reaching the atmosphere. Once captured, it should be injected deep underground in a carefully designed storage.

The Agriculture Industry

As the world’s population soars, the agriculture industry continues to strive towards meeting our consumption needs. Unfortunately, meeting these demands translates to contributing 13-18% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. The bulk of the emissions by the industry are nitrous oxide and methane. There are many reasons for these emissions.

Some of the management practices employed by farmers can increase the quantity of nitrogen in the soil, leading to nitrous oxide emissions. Activities such as the overuse of fertilizers, the cultivation of nitrogen-fixing plants, and irrigation methods are examples of these practices.

Like cattle, ruminant livestock produces methane naturally as a part of their digestion, in a process known as enteric fermentation. This gas produced is significant as it represents over 25% of the emissions from the industry.

The manure handling process can also add to the methane and nitrous oxide emissions. In the US, manure handling accounts for around 12% of the greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry.

Other sources of emissions in the industry include urea application, liming, rice cultivation, and burning crop remnants. Alone, these contribute methane and nitrous oxide to the atmosphere in smaller quantities, but together, the quantity can be significant.

Bush burning to clear space for agriculture is another big contributor to air pollution. Apart from the carbon emissions from the carbon burning, this practice leads to trees’ felling that would have otherwise absorbed carbon dioxide.

In 2019, the deforestation events in the Amazon were a major talking point. There was a 278% increase in the size of the forest lost to fires in comparison to 2018. Most of the fires were intentionally set to create space for agriculture.

What can we do about this?

  • More people need to explore ways to cut down livestock protein in their meals and consider embracing a vegetarian diet. Agricultural greenhouse gas emissions will fall by 28% if every American becomes a vegan.
  • If meat must be part of your diet, organic and locally sourced options should be high on your list.
  • The World Wildlife Fund’s work against the Amazon fires needs to be supported by more people worldwide.
  • Farmers need to ensure they’re only using fertilizers with the optimal amount of nitrogen in crop production. Excess application of nitrogen will cause a high amount of nitrous oxide emissions without any extra benefits for crop production.
  • Keeping wetland rice soils dry during the growing season can reduce methane emissions. Farmers have to be educated and equipped to drain the soils following harvest.
  • Varying the feeding practices and other livestock management methods can reduce methane emissions arising from enteric fermentation.
  • Methane emitted from large scale manure decomposition can be harvested for use as renewable energy.

The Fashion Industry

The mass of fashion waste dumped around the globe and the carbon emission resulting from making the materials means that the industry is a major player in pollution and harming the environment. 10% of the carbon emissions worldwide can be attributed to fashion production.

The major culprit for these emissions is the “fast fashion” niche wear clothing made from cheap material, usually containing microplastics. Such products are also typically made in countries where the factories run around the clock on gas or coal. 

The rise in cheap, fast fashion has also contributed immensely to the high turnover of clothes each year. Fashion enthusiasts are sending 85% of textiles to the dump every year to keep up with the latest fashion trends.

The delivery leg of the industry also adds its quota to the overall count. Postal services in the US generate as much annual carbon emissions as seven million cars. They don’t only deliver fashion items, but it’s an important factor to consider still.

What can we do about this?

  • We need to discourage fashion wastage by prioritizing second-hand clothes. Patronize businesses that sell these clothes first before you order a new set.
  • The clothes rental industry needs more attention. Renting clothes you’ll wear for one occasion is more eco-friendly than buying them.
  • Large manufacturers in the fashion niche should explore the use of renewable energy sources and cut down on using microplastics in production.
  • Fashion retail outlets should encourage bulk purchases to reduce delivery trips from one customer per year. Discounts and special promotions will ensure customers save their orders for specific shopping windows, reducing multiple shopping deliveries to one or two per year.

The Food Retail Industry

Like we’ve seen with the agriculture industry, the food retail industry also has to work hard to satiate a booming population’s hunger. This has, unfortunately, led to the expansion of the retail industry’s carbon footprint. 

The rising population means we’re consuming more food, but it also means that we’re generating more food waste than ever. In the US, around 30-40% of the food supply ends up as waste, with most of it going to landfills across the country. That’s a massive 40 million tons of food wasted.

One of the worst food retail industry elements is the packaging waste they churn out every day. Retailers contribute more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year to the environment. This level of plastic waste invariably has far-reaching effects on our environment.

More than 100,000 marine mammals die yearly due to plastic pollution, and around 56% (20) of dolphins, whales, and other such species have ingested plastic. Consuming plastic makes such animals suffer for a long time before they eventually die. Some of the toxic chemicals in micro-plastics can also affect reproduction, further pushing species close to the brink of endangerment or extinction.

What can we do about this?

  • There should be concerted efforts to encourage food retailers to embrace sustainable practices. Outrage from environmental protection groups and other concerned individuals can force some grocers to cut down on the use of plastic packaging.
  • When you go out to shop, insist on reusable shopping bags.
  • Choose a sustainable supermarket that’s local to you and encourage other people to do the same.

The Transportation Industry

The emissions from the road, air, rail, and marine transportation accounts for around 24% of the global C02 emissions. The commercial freight niche section accounts for 40% of that total, while the passenger niche accounts for 60%.

The number of flights across the world has increased by 40% in the last decade. However, air travel isn’t the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions from passenger transportation, as it is responsible for 16% of the total.

Land-based passenger transport is still the main source of emissions. An airplane will emit more CO2 than a car, but it can move hundreds of people at a time. On the other hand, cars are almost everywhere, with more than 93% of US households having access to at least one. In the UK, 87% of the residents own a car. 

Data from the EPA shows that transportation was responsible for 28.2% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. This makes it the largest contributor to U.S greenhouse gas emissions. Population growth, urban spread, low fuel prices, and economic growth have also led to a 46.1% increase in the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by passenger cars and light trucks between 1990 and 2018.

When you look at these statistics and consider that a single passenger vehicle can emit 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year, it’s easy to see that cars are the biggest villains against the transportation sector environment.

What can we do about this?

  • Limit your international travel to the barest minimum.
  • We should encourage more use of public transport when possible.
  • Keep your commute as short as possible.
  • Vehicle manufacturers have to continue research into making fuel-efficient or non-fossil fuel cars more affordable.
  • When you must drive, stick to eco-friendly practices such as avoiding rapid braking and acceleration, sticking to the speed limits, and reducing engine idling.
  • Shipping companies need to improve their overall voyage planning to increase fuel efficiency. Practices like improved weather routing are highly recommended.

The Construction Industry

Although we’ve learned to look at construction as a way of life, it is very harsh on the environment. The industry is a strong contributor to all kinds of pollution. Statistics show that it is responsible for 50% of landfill waste, 40% of drinking water pollution, and 23% air pollution. It’s also a big contributor to noise pollution.

One of the major ways construction damages the environment is through the massive consumption of raw materials. The industry is responsible for half of all extraction of natural resources worldwide, with more than 400 million tons of materials taken from the earth for use in the industry. It’s also responsible for a quarter of the global waste generated.

The impact of construction affects the environment at large, including wildlife. With natural habitats destroyed during projects, millions of animals end up getting displaced every year.

What can we do about this?

  • Construction in wildlife areas has to be discouraged.
  • There should be more emphasis on sustainable construction practices like reusing materials, replacing natural resources harvested for construction where possible, etc.
  • Repurposing of existing structures should be properly considered before new ones are constructed.
  • You can help local wildlife perseveration and reforestation efforts in your area.

The Technology Industry

Including the technology industry as one of the worst for the environment and pollution may be counterintuitive, seeing how it has helped a great deal in the battle to adopt renewable energy and eco-friendly transportation. However, the industry is also contributing its quota to the world’s CO2 emissions.

In 2015, the global demand for gadgets and internet-connected devices meant that these devices were consuming 3-5% of the electricity generated worldwide. This will only increase as global tech demand is expected to keep growing by 20% every year. This adds to the industry’s overall emissions expected to jump to 3.5% by the end of 2020—a figure that will overtake aviation and shipping.

It remains to be seen if the tech industry’s contribution to greener transportation and sustainable lifestyle will be enough to offset its carbon footprint. Presently, the odds are good, but we can do more.

What can we do about this?

  • We need to cut down on the amount of electricity consumed by gadgets and devices lying dormant half the time.
  • We can reduce tech waste by only buying necessary gadgets.
  • Embracing sustainable tech is also good for the environment. So, instead of buying high-wattage electric flashlights, for example, you should go for a solar-powered option.
  • Tech manufacturers and commercial establishments heavily reliant on tech need to keep exploring ways to embrace sustainability.

The Wood Industry

Your exquisite mahogany furniture set may have been made from unethically harvested wood. This is just one of the ways the wood industry harms the environment and contributes to pollution. As we’ve seen above, plants are useful in the fight against air pollution as they absorb CO2 and store it—a process is known as biological carbon sequestration

When the wood industry indiscriminately harvests plants that should act as carbon sinks, we end up with an increase in the atmosphere’s CO2 content around the area. In the US and other developed countries, many policies have been put in place to ensure raw wood is harvested ethically.

In many parts of the world, however, such policies don’t exist or are poorly enforced. This is why large corporations from more developed countries set upfronts in these jurisdictions—typically in developing nations—to illegally harvest and export wood. 

Some Chinese companies proceed to pass the illegally acquired wood off as eco-friendly harvests. With such arrangements, any gains made by following strict wood harvesting rules in developed countries is all but eroded.

What can we do about this?

  • We need more conversations around the illegal harvesting of wood by companies from the US, Europe, and China, who know exactly what they are doing. More has to be done to discourage poor countries from allowing their lands to be deforested illegally.
  • Practices that encourage forest land destruction (such as developing croplands, grasslands, and settlements) should be discouraged.
  • Planting after human and natural forest disturbances will increase vegetation growth and cut down on soil carbon losses.

The Global Impact of Pollution

Below are some key facts about pollution, which further underline why we need to cut down the industries’ contributions covered above to the problem:

  • Pollution is a global killer that directly affects over 100 million people, killing nine million. This makes it comparable to diseases such as HIV and malaria.
  • More than 100,000 sea mammals and 1 million seabirds are killed by pollution per year.
  • People living in places with a high level of air pollution face a 29% higher probability of death from lung cancer than those living in less polluted areas.
  • Around 40% of American rivers and 46% of the lakes are too polluted for aquatic life to grow or to allow swimming and fishing.
  • America makes up 5% of the world’s population, but it uses up 24% of the world’s energy.
  • 1.2 trillion gallons of industrial waste and untreated sewage are dumped into US water every year.
  • Around 1.7 million children die every year around the world due to unhealthy environments.
  • Humans generate more than 1.3 billion tons (41) of waste per year. The US is the biggest culprit, with over 256 million tons.
  • The Los Angeles International Airport is a good example of just how much the air transport niche affects the environment. More than 33,000 planes fly in and out of the airport, releasing more than 800,000 tons of CO2. The airport itself emits around 19,000 tons of CO2 per month.
  • The environmental cost of a single NASA space shuttle launch can be likened to New York City emissions over one weekend. Firstly, 13 tons of hydrochloric acid released kills every plant and fish near the launch site (half a mile). Secondly, around 23 tons of harmful particulate matter is released in the process, which will settle at the launch site for a long time. The entire launch will add 28 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.
  • To properly clean up the 36,000 seriously contaminated sites in the country of hazardous wastes, the US needs to spend between $370 billion and $1.7 trillion.
  • Across the US, factories discharge around 3 million tons of toxic chemicals into the air, land, and water every year.
  • More than 176 million pounds of cigarette butts are discarded per year across the US. This is a big environmental concern because the butts are made of cellulose acetate, taking up to 400 years to decompose fully.
  • More than one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, which is equivalent to over 100 million barrels of oil.
  • Light pollution kills hundreds of thousands of sea turtle hatchlings every year in Florida. They move towards the brighter lights and end up crawling too far away from the sea. This type of pollution also distorts the migration and breeding of different species of birds.
  • More than 51 billion pieces of litter are left on US roads every year. The cleanup costs the government around $11.5 billion annually.
  • Antarctica holds the title of the cleanest place on Earth, but this is because of the strict anti-pollution laws in the region.
  • More than 80% of Californians live in areas where particle pollution and ozone hits unhealthy levels at some point for any year.
  • China is the world’s largest CO2 emitter. Since 2000, it has emitted more CO2 than Canada, and the US put together. However, they still burn less fossil fuel on average than the US because they have more than four times the population.

Final Thoughts

The environmental impact of the industries mentioned above may leave a deflating feeling, but we must remain positive. In places like the UK, renewable energy overtook coal and oil—a clear demonstration of what can be achieved if we treat the climate and environmental emergency with the urgency it deserves.

The world is now very much aware of climate change. However, we need to collectively do more to push these industries to dial back on their contributions to the problem. We must also do our best to ensure we aren’t encouraging or aiding them as they harm the environment.

Stay impactful,

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