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A Primer on the US Toxics Release Inventory and Implications for China

April 11, 2013

This post was produced for NRDC’s Fellows blog.

In 1995, Vice President Al Gore hailed the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) as, “one of the most powerful tools in this country for environmental protection.”[1] While largely unknown to the American public, TRI has been widely hailed by specialists as an integral initiative of the government’s environmental protection efforts.

In 1984, a toxic release at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India resulted in long-term health impacts to over 500,000 residents. This event, and another toxics release incident in West Virginia catalyzed the development of the US Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) in the 1980s. TRI is a powerful example of the “third wave” of environmental management, in which government agencies leverage broader stakeholder engagement, as opposed to command-and-control polices (first wave) and market-based tools (second wave).[2]

While TRI has largely been received as a successful program, which has dramatically reduced the amount of toxic chemicals released in the US, some critique the system for the following reasons: the regulatory burden on industry, a perceived lack of enforcement, and limited public awareness.

PRTR and TRI Nations


Nations in blue have pollutant release and transfer registry (PRTR) systems like the US TRI. Nations in yellow do not. A key effort of NRDC’s China program is encouraging the Chinese environmental authorities to adopt a PRTR system.

NRDC’s Open Information Initiative has partnered with Ma Jun’s organization, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, to produce the annual Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI), which ranks local Chinese environmental protection agencies on their level of environmental transparency. Through this effort, we seek to encourage China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to establish a pollutant release and transfer registry (PRTR) similar to the US TRI. Stay tuned for the release of the fourth annual PITI, which marks a movement toward voluntary corporate disclosure.

The brief from which this post’s research was excerpted is available here.


[1] Environmental Protection Agency, “Incentive Effect of the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI),” link (Last accessed: 10 March 2013).

[2]Michael Toffel and Glen Dowell, “Toxics Release Inventory: A Case Study in Information Disclosure Regulation,” RegBlog, link (last accessed:  13 March 2013).

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