The Five Dirtiest Industries

Which industries do the most damage to the environment?

What are the dirtiest industries? Sometimes the most innocuous-seeming are the worst culprits. PopSci takes a look inside five of the sectors most responsible for unleashing destruction upon the planet.

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Putting up all those new shops, condos and schools might seem like a positive step for a community, but it has a dark, anti-green underbelly. It’s estimated the industry contributes about 4 percent of all particle pollution to the atmosphere and has a tendency to dump solvents and chemicals in local waterways. Add to that the fact that very few materials from demolitions are recycled and the use of sustainable lumber is still not standard, and the building trade ranks as one of the worst.

Local Government

Sure, the presidential candidates pay lip service to the environment, but it’s the folks closer to home who have the biggest impact, and few of them have Mother Nature on their radar screens. It takes a village board to implement smart-growth zoning laws, buy greenspace, or offer property-tax breaks for eco-sensitive development. Without citizen pressure, it’s doubtful that many local politicians will start thinking globally on their own.


According to a study released last year, almost all our commercial fishing stocks will crash by 2048. That means cod, tuna and even anchovies will be luxury items if the fishing industry doesn’t police itself better. Domestically, the U.S. is doing a decent job—we’ve helped halt the decline of species like haddock and black bass in our coastal waters and put into effect a full ban on salmon fishing on the West Coast earlier this year. But in international waters, the U.S., along with mostly unregulated foreign trawlers, indiscriminately catch and kill everything from sea turtles to dolphins, pushing species like bluefin tuna, toothfish and cod close to the point of no return.


Forget Leonardo DiCaprio and his Prius. The true face of Hollywood is one of waste and environmental malaise. According to a UCLA report, Tinseltown is a strange mix of green forward thinkers and those entrenched in the old ways. Studios build and tear down tons of set materials without recycling, use thousands of diesel generators, and the industry as a whole emits almost eight million tons of carbon dioxide. Many studios have begun greening programs, but it’s going to take more than a couple eco-celebs to make up for a century of waste.

Gold Mining

You probably don’t live anywhere near a gold mine, but chances are you own some gold jewelry or electronics that have bits of gold inside. Gold mining, which often takes place in developing nations often uses huge pools of cyanide to leach gold from the earth. Occasionally these pools burst, destroying rivers. Illegal miners collect mercury-laced gold, separate the two, and leave the concentrated mercury to pollute rivers. What can you do? It’s difficult to know where your gold is coming from, but buying vintage jewelry—the ultimate in recycling—won’t increase demand for more mining.