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."
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.