Eco-labelling scheme launched amid widespread criticism

The EC eco-labelling scheme was launched well behind schedule at the end of June and with labelling criteria agreed for just two product groups. The delays have finally prompted the UK Eco-labelling Board (UKEB) to go public with criticisms of the European Commission for failing to back the project with sufficient resources, and of some Member States for neglecting to make arrangements for participating in the scheme.

The Regulation to establish the scheme was adopted 18 months ago (ENDS Report 203, pp 18-19). At the time the official goal was to launch it towards the end of 1992 with labelling criteria agreed for 10-12 product groups.

But the scheme has not only been launched several months late, but with criteria agreed for just washing machines and dishwashers (ENDS Report 218, p 21 ).

Manufacturers of these products will shortly be able to apply for the eco-label when the criteria are published in the EC's Official Journal, and it is possible that the first labelled goods will be on sale in September. Most of the main manufacturers are still keen to apply for the label despite some press reports to the contrary, according to the UK Eco-labelling Board.

Despite the relief that the scheme is now up and running, the UKEB and the Department of the Environment have criticised their EC counterparts for the slow progress and lack of cooperation between Member States and the European Commission.

The UK, said Dr Elizabeth Nelson, Chairman of UKEB, "has put a lot of time, energy and money into developing the scheme. Unfortunately this effort is not being matched by other Member States. And the procedures in Brussels are too prone to uncertainty and delay."

Only half the Member States have established competent bodies, although the EC Regulation required them to do so by last September. Manufacturers in those countries will therefore be unable to apply for an eco-label. Some Member States have also been slow in drawing up criteria for product groups they agreed to take on.

Dr Nelson also spoke out against the Commission, alleging that it has failed to give the scheme direction and adequate resources. For example, Brussels has not yet made any money available to pay a life-cycle analysis expert to draw up guidelines for cradle-to-grave studies, which should provide the basis for labelling criteria. "The work should have been done months ago," she said.

The scheme has also been criticised by industry and environmental groups. Industry has generally complained that most of the proposed product criteria are too stringent, while environmental groups have claimed they are too lax. Trade groups and manufacturers of light bulbs, hairsprays and tissue, kitchen and copying paper have all threatened not to participate in the scheme. Environmentalists are annoyed that they have not been consulted although, at least in the UK, the UKEB says it has invited environmental groups without success to working group meetings.

Meanwhile, progress on developing labelling criteria for other products has hit several barriers. Some of these were outlined in April (ENDS Report 219, p 26 ). However, criteria for light bulbs, toilet and kitchen paper and hairsprays could be considered by the EC Regulatory Committee - the final hurdle - on 23 July, although objections raised by the Consultative Forum may hold up an agreement on the criteria for hairsprays (ENDS Report 220, p 21 ) and lightbulbs. Draft criteria for kitchen and toilet paper also faced criticism from the Consultative Forum. Progress on some of the other products is outlined below:

  • Soil improvers and growing media: The final draft criteria for soil improvers have been submitted by the UKEB to the Consultative Forum, based on the exclusion of peat from eco-labelled products (ENDS Report 219, pp 25-26 ). For growing media, which have more demanding performance requirements, the consultants originally put forward two options: disqualifying peat altogether or allowing 50% peat (ENDS Report 218, pp 15-18 ). The UKEB accepted a complete ban on peat in June.

    However, no further work is being undertaken on growing media in the hope that an EC-wide agreement on the less controversial criteria for soil improvers will pave the way to an agreement on the former.

  • Packaging materials: In June, an Italian working group presented guidelines for assessing the environmental impact of differing packaging materials. It has put forward three factors to be considered when setting the criteria: reduction in raw materials, the reusability of packaging, and the use of recyclable materials. Although packaging will not itself be able to obtain the eco-label, all eco-labelled products will have to meet these requirements.

  • Refrigerators: Another Italian working group put forward 12 categories of fridges and freezers for which eco-labelling criteria should be drawn up. The main impacts to be addressed are energy use and ozone depletion potential.

  • Paints and varnishes: After repeated delays, draft criteria are now expected in July and agreement is expected in the autumn.

  • Shampoo: The French have identified five shampoo product groups: baby, family, cosmetic and embellishing, cosmetic and conditioning, and shampoos for special uses. The industry is now co-funding a life-cycle assessment of the products.

  • Shoes: A Dutch group is expected to report in October. The functional unit has already been defined as "one year of standard use" and the major impact identified as VOC emissions during shoe manufacture.

  • Cat litter: A Dutch working group found that the 35 million cats in the EC use 850,000 tonnes of cat litter each year. National experts were recently shown samples made from recycled newsprint and/or which could be composted. Performance criteria are likely to include odour control and liquid absorption. The final criteria are due in December.

  • Floor and wall tiles: The proposed key environmental impacts for this product group include energy consumption, emissions of particulates and fluorine, waste utilisation, and the composition of waste sludge from manufacture.

  • Hairstyling aids: At this stage three product groups have been identified: gels, mousses and other hairstyling sprays. The consultants are now looking at whether to treat these under one set of criteria.

  • Dishwashing and detergent products: the performance criteria are likely to include general cleaning power, whiteness, stain removal and colour maintenance. Negative lists of product constituents are being considered. Draft criteria on detergents are expected in July from a German working group.

  • Female sanitary products: the first ad hoc meeting is timetabled for mid-July and UKEB hope to finalise criteria by the end of the year.

    The UKEB intends to give the scheme a more high-profile launch when the first eco-labelled products reach the shelves this autumn. Its £250,000 advertising campaign, possibly backed by EC money, will be focussed on national newspapers and women's and trade magazines. But most of the publicity, the UKEB hopes, will come from manufacturers pushing eco-labelled products.

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