Eco-labelling's slow advance

Painfully slow progress is being made in the struggle to agree standards under the EC eco-labelling scheme. But criteria for soil improvers and kitchen and toilet tissue were agreed on 29 March by the EC's Regulatory Committee - bringing the total to four product groups.

When the eco-labelling rules were published in April 1992 it was expected that criteria for 10-12 product groups would be agreed in time for the scheme's launch in October 1992 (ENDS Report 205, p 21 ). But so far criteria for only washing machines and dishwashers have been published. An official review is under way in an attempt to remove the blockages to the criteria-setting process (ENDS Report 227, p 26 ).

There was progress in March with the agreement of standards for soil improvers and toilet and kitchen tissues by the Regulatory Committee. Eco-labelled soil improvers must not contain peat from any source. This paves the way for similar criteria for growing media on which work was suspended until agreement on soil improvers had been reached (ENDS Report 219, pp 25-26 ).

The exact criteria for toilet and kitchen tissues were not known as ENDS went to press. The proposal submitted to the Committee put a tighter limit on discharges of chlorinated organics, making it harder for tissues made with fibres bleached with chlorine dioxide to gain the label. The definition of sustainable forestry was also clarified.

Criteria for almost 30 product groups are being drawn up. The list below shows the state of play for each category.

Work on hair styling aids, antiperspirants and deodorants has been halted until the hairspray criteria (ENDS Report 220, p 21 ) are finalised. It is also expected that proposals for dishwashing and handwashing detergents will move quickly through the eco-labelling process once the requirements for laundry detergents (ENDS Report 226, pp 26-27 ) have been agreed.

The French have run into problems with shampoos and batteries after failing to secure industry co-funding for criteria development.

Issues raised with some of the other product groups are summarised below:

  • Female sanitary products: Work on this group has been suspended because it is believed that the eco-label will have no impact on consumers' purchasing decisions. The position will be reviewed in the autumn.

  • Ceramic crockery and decorative glassware: Portugal has offered to draw up criteria for these products - but the process has been stalled because it has yet to set up a national eco-labelling competent body.

  • Shoes: Work on shoes may be dropped. At a recent working group meeting, there was broad agreement that shoes are not suitable for an eco-label because there are so many varieties. However, the Dutch are still keen to go ahead.

  • Insulation materials: Many objections have been raised to the proposed criteria for cavity and external wall insulation (ENDS Report 227, pp 25-26 ). The Danes are now considering an extension of the study to include loft and interior wall insulation

  • Cat litter: Development of criteria for these products by the Dutch is being held up by the need for odour absorption properties to be built into the functional unit. The working group has agreed to delay the study until May.

  • Textiles: Proposed criteria for T-shirts and bed-linen have been rubbished by manufacturers, who say that they are too complex and difficult to enforce. The European textile finishers association AITIT wants to combine the eco-labelling scheme with the EC Regulation on eco-management and audit (EMA). An eco-label would be awarded if every firm in the production chain had been certified under EMA or an equivalent scheme.

    However, EMA only recognises management systems - it does not ensure that a company is using best practice or surpassing legislative requirements. The environmental "credentials" of the final product could therefore differ markedly between manufacturers.

    As a fall-back position, AITIT wants the criteria to be limited to those areas for which the textile industry has direct responsibility. For example, it wants to exclude the growth or manufacture of fibre from the criteria.

    The criteria are not intended to discriminate between cotton and polyester. However, the documentation says that the demands placed on cotton may be hard to achieve. They do allow some pesticides to be used, but the easiest way to get the label would be to use "organic" cotton. Current world production of organic cotton is about 3,000 tonnes - compared with total production of 18 million tonnes.

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