EC Environment Ministers agreed the legislation which created the scheme last December (ENDS Report 203, pp 18-19). They also promised to co-operate in getting it off the ground next October with some 10-12 product groups.
That objective still seems ambitious. Only eight months remain for the lead country for each product group to draft eco-labelling criteria, based on an assessment of its impacts on the environment across its entire life-cycle. The draft criteria will then have to be agreed at EC level by a "consultation forum" of the various interest groups and by a committee of national experts.
The first product groups to come under the scheme were agreed at a meeting of European Commission and national officials and representatives of industrial, environmental and consumer groups at the end of February. The products, and the Member States which will take the lead in developing eco-labelling criteria in each case, are as follows:
The likelihood that criteria can be agreed by October varies from product to product. For example, extensive preparatory work on criteria for washing machines was done by the UK in one of the pilot studies for the scheme (ENDS Report 200, pp 25-6), and the Department of the Environment says that it hopes to have draft criteria for these and dishwashers ready for submission to Brussels in mid- to late April. Likewise, the Danes have prepared a framework for setting criteria for paper products, although this may yet provoke controversy over issues such as the treatment of products containing recycled fibre (ENDS Report 204, pp 25-6 ).
Paints and laundry detergents also featured in the pilot studies. But the French study on paints has still to be finalised (ENDS Report 202, pp 25-6), while the German authorities' ability to devise labelling criteria acceptable to other Member States by October is to be doubted. Their initial pilot study was criticised for focussing too strongly on the environmental impacts of detergents at the disposal stage, to the exclusion of raw material and energy consumption during the production stage of the life-cycle in particular.
The UK's move to act as a lead country on soil conditioners will take the Government into the sensitive area of peat versus "renewable" alternatives.
The inclusion of hair sprays on the UK's list may also lead it into difficult territory. Intense arguments can be anticipated over whether hand-pumped systems or Procter & Gamble's novel "Pump & Spray" product are "fit for use" when compared to conventional sprays with hydrocarbon propellants, as they must be under the EC rules before they can qualify for an eco-label. It will also be interesting to see how P&G's competitors react to any suggestion that the criteria should exclude hydrocarbon-propelled aerosols but allow the "Pump & Spray" system - which has close patent protection - to qualify for an eco-label.
Several candidates for later addition to the scheme also emerged at the February meeting. The Dutch authorities, which want to establish the "competent body" required by the EC rules to administer the eco-labelling system at national level before carrying out product studies, put forward tentative proposals for future studies on refrigerators, soap, plaster and light bulbs - though the latter have now been claimed by the UK. The Italians also expressed an interest in taking the lead on refrigerators, and the Danes on textile products.
Meanwhile, an official announcement is expected shortly on the location of the UK's competent body.