Common sense. Many organizations think they have it. In reality, few practice it.

A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program, the Common Sense Initiative (CSI), focuses on collaboration among environmental leaders, representatives from six targeted industries (including automotive), and federal, state and local regulators.

The purpose of the program is to study ways of developing cleaner, cheaper and smarter environmental-protection strategies from the current complex web of environmental regulations.

An issue tailor-made for CSI is the development of improved automotive paint technologies.

The environmental impact of automotive painting is significant. On average, painting represents 90% of an auto assembly plant's emissions and solid waste exiting the plant.

Forcing the pace of new automotive paint technologies are traditional drivers such as optimizing manufacturing costs and increasing automobile quality. Now, however, environmental regulations such as MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) are setting the direction for paint technology by compelling older plants to implement the standards of newer facilities.

MACT standards are based on the average emissions achieved by the best performing 12% of existing automotive sources. Since there are about 70 auto assembly plants in the U.S., the direction of technology for only eight or nine facilities will define the level of technology for die remaining plants.

Although MACT standards will not affect all auto plants until the year 2000, they may impact plants that must modify or obtain new permits due to process changes or expansions before that time.

Complicating the issue are wide differences in paint technologies among companies and plants.

Many older facilities in urban areas, as well as some newer plants, may have stricter emission limits than those located in rural areas.

MACT standards are prompting innovations in paint technology that were considered impractical just a few years ago, including such enviro-friendly concepts as chromium-free pretreatment, lead-free electrodeposition coat, powder primer, water-borne basecoat and powder clearcoat.

The standards impact end-of-pipe controls of the paint process to restrict air emissions. Control techniques such as concentrating VOC-laden air by recirculating booth exhaust, adsorption with carbon or zeolite wheels, and recuperative and regenerative incineration are becoming more prevalent.

So what should the industry do? In general, auto companies should consider a more proactive, collaborative attitude and work together.

Automotive companies share common objectives. We all are challenged to comply with the expanding and complex array of environmental regulations. We all are committed to providing quality products to the customer, being good corporate citizens, and meeting economic targets.

Specifically, automotive companies should:

* Institute more CSI-type initiatives. Although programs like the Low Emission Paint Consortium involve collaboration among targeted firms (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler), opportunities for all automotive companies to work together and with the government and public are few. It would benefit the entire industry to work together for emissions reduction through development of better paint technologies.

* Share information at technical conferences, such as the U.S. EPA Low-/No-VOC Coating Technology Conference.

* Publicize our successes. Communicating the many significant environmental accomplishments that often go unnoticed by the public, the government and even our fellow employees would enhance awareness and improve understanding.

* Reach out to government agencies and the public. Help them understand our processes, our concerns, and our emphasis on environmental stewardship and safety. Public tours and outreach programs to local groups would increase communications and help dispel misinformation.

Why work together? Because it makes sense -- common sense.