Household detergent producers seek voluntary EC agreement

The European detergents industry is hoping to sign a voluntary agreement with the European Commission to reduce the environmental impact of household detergents. The agreement, aimed in part at heading off new legislation, would be based on a draft industry code of practice which includes targets to reduce per capita use of detergents and product packaging, and to cut energy consumption during use.

The detergents industry is seeking the Commission's blessing to have the code upgraded to the status of a voluntary agreement - a new form of environmental instrument for which the Commission published guidelines last December (ENDS Report 264, p 39 ). Although voluntary agreements exist between national industry groups and individual Member States, any deal on detergents would be one of the first between the Commission and a European trade body.

Unlike Member States, the Commission has no powers to enter into legally binding agreements with industry. But it has promised to require that all EC-level agreements include quantified objectives and monitoring and reporting provisions.

The European Soap, Detergent and Maintenance Products Industry Association (AISE) sent its draft environmental code to the Commission last autumn. The move was driven in part by the prospect of further regulation of household detergents - including a recent Dutch proposal to the Oslo and Paris Commissions that standard powders should be phased out in favour of compact powders.

The code will be open to all manufacturers and importers placing household detergents on the EC market, including retailer own brands, whether or not they are affiliated to AISE national associations. Both laundry and dishwasher detergents are covered by the agreement, which will be reviewed every five years. Progress reports would be made "at least" every two years at national and European levels.

Central to the code are four targets to be achieved within five years, although these "may be adjusted for individual countries depending on ongoing environmental progress, washing habits and consumer choices."

  • A 5% reduction in the energy used in the washing process. This will be achieved by encouraging consumers - through instructions printed on products - to use machines at full capacity and to minimise the number of boil washes.

  • A 10% cut in per capita consumption of detergents. Encouraging consumers to use the correct dose, development of products which need lower doses and an increase in the market share of compact detergents could all contribute to the target. In some Member States, such as Portugal and Spain, standard powders have yet to face competition from compacts.

  • A 10% reduction in primary and secondary packaging consumption per capita. This could be reached by greater use of refills and further lightweighting of packaging.

  • A 10% cut in per capita consumption of organic ingredients which are "not inherently biodegradable" as measured by recognised biodegradability tests. This will require the reformulation of products and will focus on a wide range of ingredients, including bleaches, fragrances and polymers.

    Reductions in surfactant content are unlikely. The Commission's Industry Directorate, DGIII, is reviewing the EC Directives on biodegradability of surfactants after pressure from some northern Member States to extend the legislation to mineralisation. But ENDS understands that a review of the legislation carried out by UK consultancy WRc for DGIII has found just "a handful" of chemicals that require further testing.

    AISE has dropped a claim, made in an earlier draft of the code, that life-cycle assessment (LCA) has shown that using correct dosages and wash temperatures - rather than changing the product itself - are the best ways "for consumers to make choices which actually reduce" the environmental impact of detergents.

    Companies adopting the code would have to provide baseline data on each of the targets, and report their progress to the AISE through national associations. Whether individual firms will have to sign declarations is still being debated, but it is unlikely that adopting the code will be a condition of AISE membership. "It will be in [companies'] interests to follow the code for competitive reasons," an AISE spokesman commented.

    The scheme is to be launched in Denmark and Sweden, possibly before the end of the year, with cooperation from consumer organisations and retailers.

    The Commission's Environment Directorate, DGXI, which is sharing the lead role on the code with DGIII, agrees with the AISE that much of the environmental impact of household detergents "does depend on use", and if the AISE's publicity campaign is successful the code could have a significant effect.

    But DGXI has yet to be convinced that the code warrants upgrading to voluntary agreement status. "We will not recognise something that is already happening," an official told ENDS.

    DGXI has commissioned WRc and LCA specialists at the Swedish institute IVL to assess how the proposed targets could be achieved, how the process could be monitored and what the environmental benefits would be.

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