Eco-labelling criteria for soil improvers and tissues

Eco-labelling criteria for soil improvers, toilet paper and kitchen rolls were approved by an EC Regulatory Committee on 29 March. Soil improvers will have to be made solely from waste products, ruling out virgin peat, while the tissue standards also favour recycled fibres. But the tissue criteria were agreed in the absence of a complete assessment procedure - so manufacturers do not yet know whether their products would qualify for an eco-label.

The Committee's decisions have doubled the number of product groups for which criteria have now been set. Those for washing machines and dishwashers were adopted last summer. But across the EC only one company, Hoover, has an eco-label to date. Assuming that producers of soil improvers and tissues take a more positive approach to the scheme, the first eco-labelled products in these categories may be in the shops by the autumn.

  • Soil improvers: Work on the criteria for this group began in early 1992, led by the UK Ecolabelling Board (UKEB). Proposals were published in January 1993 (ENDS Report 217, pp 25-26 ) but took over a year to reach the Regulatory Committee, with very few changes in principle in the interim. They were approved by a qualified majority, with Ireland, France and the Netherlands voting against.

    As proposed, only virgin peat-free garden composts will be awarded eco-labels. "This decision is good news for saving peat bogs in the UK and around Europe and encourages the reuse of organic matter," says the UKEB.

    The criteria state that the organic matter content must be provided "by constituents derived from the processing and/or reuse of waste materials", as defined by the EC Directive on waste. When the product contains sewage sludge, the sludge must conform with the 1986 EC Directive on the use of sewage sludge in agriculture.

    In practice, this means that eco-labelled soil improvers will be made from composted organic material from domestic waste, sewage sludge, or agricultural, industrial or food processing residues. Waste peat, such as that from mushroom growing, may also be used.

    The most significant change introduced by the Regulatory Committee was to the criteria for heavy metals. The draft was based on certain application rates, and would have allowed a product with a high heavy metal content to qualify for an eco-label provided the manufacturer instructed users to apply it at lower rates. In the final criteria, however, metals in the product are subject to concentration limits, giving producers less flexibility but also providing greater clarity. Products with high metal levels, such as those made with 100% sewage sludge or unsorted municipal waste, may well need to be mixed with less contaminated material to meet the criteria.

    With the exception of mercury, the metal limits are considerably tighter than the concentrations permitted in sewage sludge for disposal to agricultural land under the 1986 Directive, and are generally towards the lower end of the range of limits on metals in soil used for sludge disposal (see table ). The limits are much tighter than those proposed by the UK Organic Waste Composting Association (OWCA), but are generally similar to those set under Germany's Blue Angel environmental labelling scheme.

    For composts produced from industrial processes, municipal waste and sewage sludge there are additional limits for molybdenum, selenium, arsenic and fluorine.

    Following pressure from the European Commission's Agriculture Directorate, the proposed limits on nutrient loading were halved to ensure that soil improvers are not used as growing media. Some waste composts will again have to be mixed with more inert material, such as coir, to meet these tougher requirements.

    The criteria are now awaiting publication by the Commission. In addition, test methods have yet to be finalised.

    The EC initiative and the general concern about peat use has prompted a rapid emergence of peat-free products. It is now likely that over 10-20% of the UK soil improver market will qualify for an eco-label. In B&Q stores, 30-40% of soil improver sales are already peat-free. This year, the company is selling peat-free and peat-based products at the same price for the first time because of improving economies of scale in peat-free production. All of B&Q's composts are produced from clean industrial sources rather than municipal waste or sewage sludge.

    Now that the soil improver criteria have been agreed, work on growing media can resume. Performance requirements are generally more stringent for growing media, so there is a view that peat-based products should gain an eco-label if the peat comes from sites without conservation designations. But Alan Knight of B&Q maintains that the criteria should definitely allow only peat-free products. B&Q sells peat-free alternatives to all its growing media products at the same price, and these perform as well as peat-based products, he says.

  • Toilet paper and kitchen rolls: The paper criteria were also approved by qualified majority, with the French and Portugese voting against. The decision means that products purchased regularly by consumers will be eligible for an eco-label for the first time, boosting the scheme's public visibility. Whether the main producers will go for an eco-label is still unknown. Scott's decision, says Environmental Manager Martin Kybert, is "very finely balanced".

    Some political concessions were made at the meeting, although, according to the European Tissues Symposium, "the political bartering did not refer back to what environmental gain would result from it."

    One of the most important was the deletion of the word "sustainable" in the requirement on forest management practices. This was done as a concession to environmentalists who felt, under existing guidelines on forest management, that the term was being devalued.

    Now all virgin wood will have to originate from regions where "forest management" is applied. This is defined by principles agreed at the 1993 Helsinki Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe. For countries which have not signed up to the Helsinki Resolution, the principles agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio will be used instead. More stringent forestry criteria may be introduced when they are revised in three years' time.

    As in the draft (ENDS Report 204, pp 25-26 ), the main quantitative criteria are based on a combination of hurdles and points for seven parameters: consumption of renewable resources and non-renewable resources, emissions of carbon dioxide and sulphur/sulphur dioxide, discharges of organics (COD) and chlorinated organics (AOX) to water, and production of waste.

    There has been a slight amendment to the waste criteria. The earlier proposal would have meant that 100% recycled fibre gained a good score, but papers with lower proportions of recycled fibre would not have benefitted much. Now the points system has been readjusted to reward partly-recycled tissues.

    At the request of Spain and Portugal, the hurdle for renewable resources was raised to increase the chance that tissues with a high proportion of virgin fibre will qualify for an eco-label. Now up to 3.5 tonnes of wood per tonne of tissue can be used as opposed to the previous value of 2.5 tonnes. However, it is unlikely that this will have any effect in practice because papers scoring badly on renewable resources, and indeed any other parameter, would probably not be able to make up the ground by faring well on other parameters.

    Another change will increase the total number of toilet paper and kitchen rolls qualifying no matter what the source of fibre. The total load points that may not be exceeded to gain an eco-label have been raised from 6.5 to 7.5 for toilet tissue, and from 5.5 to 6.5 for kitchen rolls.

    In theory, tissue made from 100% virgin fibres could pass, but this will "not be that easy", says Mr Kybert. The manufacturing process will have to be very clean, and fibres bleached with chlorine dioxide would need very effective effluent clean-up. Producers have the flexibility to use any technology or fibre source, but will need to perform a complicated juggling act, making trade-offs between the various parameters, to meet the criteria.

    But assessing whether a product will qualify is currently being hindered by the lack of an agreed "users' manual". "We are unhappy that the manual is clearly incomplete," says Martin Kybert, and "bewildered" that the load points were agreed without an agreed method for calculating them. That is "putting the cart before the horse," he says. Changes to the manual can "completely change the way an individual product is evaluated."

    The setting of criteria for tissue products was complicated by lobbying by non-EC paper producers. Brazilian, Canadian and US paper interests argued that the "bias" towards recycled paper unfairly protects European manufacturers because they have easier access to waste. They argue that paper made from virgin fibre can be as "environment-friendly" as paper produced with recycled fibre.

    The lobbying produced little, except the deletion of an earlier proposal that non-EC tissue plants should comply with EC environmental laws. But the main debate is yet to come. The international trade in tissue products is small compared with other paper products. Most tissues are produced close to the market because of their high volume to weight ratio.

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