The EC scheme has been plagued with delays since its conception. Eventually, Environment Ministers agreed this summer to launch it in September, when it was expected that labelling criteria would be ready for at least half a dozen product groups.
When September came, however, criteria had been agreed only for washing machines and dishwashers. Officials claimed at the time that criteria for several other product groups would be adopted by the end of the year. But the timetable for these has now been pushed forward once again to next spring.
According to the UK Ecolabelling Board (UKEB), the products on which agreement is expected next spring are toilet and kitchen tissues, hair sprays, light bulbs and soil improvers. The hold-up is in Brussels, where the European Commission is negotiating with industry on the criteria before they are submitted to the Regulatory Committee for final adoption.
For tissue products, the main problem is the definition of what constitutes "sustainable forestry". For light bulbs, the concern is a boycott of the scheme threatened by European Lighting Companies Federation (ELC), which is insisting that the only issue worth worrying about with light bulbs is energy efficiency and that this could be dealt with adequately under the EC's separate energy labelling scheme.
The UKEB and the UK Government have consistently supported the EC scheme, although in 1990 the Government promised to introduce a national eco-labelling programme if the EC's was slow in coming. National schemes are in fact now in operation in Germany, France and the Netherlands (see below), and with their credibility on the line the UK authorities have been critical of some other Member States for not backing the scheme and Brussels for not pushing it forward efficiently enough (ENDS Report 221, pp 26-27 ).
But some news this month has heartened the UKEB. The Commission has agreed to draw up timetables for setting criteria and has finally commissioned a life-cycle assessment (LCA) expert to draw up a common LCA methodology for assessing the impacts of products to be eco-labelled.
There has also been some action on the product group for which criteria have been published. One UK manufacturer has submitted an application for eco-labels for a range of washing machines which is now with the Commission. Other Member States have until 15 November to object.
Another seven companies have also asked for application forms, and the UKEB expects the first eco-labels to be awarded before Christmas. Whether these machines will be available to consumers is doubtful because this is traditionally a poor time of year to launch marketing programmes for domestic electrical appliances.