Paint study urges dual approach to curb VOC emissions

The first suggestion that statutory controls on polluting products could be tied in with the EC's eco-labelling scheme has emerged in a consultant's draft report for the European Commission on emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from decorative paints. But the Commission has caused some confusion by funding a second study which is working up wider "cradle-to-grave" environmental criteria for paints for the eco-labelling scheme.

The recommendation that VOC emissions from decorative paints and varnishes should be reduced by a combination of voluntary action involving eco-labelling and legal limits on their organic solvent content has been made in a preliminary report prepared for the Commission by a Dutch consultancy, Consultium.

The study is being sponsored by the air pollution branch of the Commission's Environment Directorate, DGXI, as part of its VOC abatement strategy.

Decorative paint contributes a sizeable fraction of the EC's VOC emissions. Releases amounted to 365,000 tonnes in 1989, roughly 10% of total solvent emissions and 3.5% of total man-made VOC emissions in the Community. Many low-VOC paints and varnishes are already on the EC market, but sales are limited mainly by a lack of consumer awareness and the failure of some current products to match consumer expectations.

In weighing the options for reducing the organic solvent content of paints, Consultium found widespread support among national environment ministries, paint producers and consumer groups for a phased approach to VOC reduction. Its recommendations are summarised in the table.

The first phase in the programme would begin in 1992 with paint producers being encouraged to apply for a voluntary EC eco-label if their products met the VOC content in the first column. Those limits would then become mandatory in 1996, when the eco-label criteria would also be tightened. The process would continue until VOCs were virtually eliminated. Consultium believes that it would cut VOC emissions to around 80,000 tonnes by 2000.

If this approach is accepted by the Commission, it would set an important precedent for other products subject to eco-labelling. Until now the labelling scheme has been presented as a wholly voluntary measure, but Consultium's proposals, if implemented, would arm the Commission with a regulatory stick with which to beat laggard businesses.

However, Brussels is still some way from deciding how to proceed. The UK, for one, has written to the Commission urging it to reconcile the work done by Consultium with another study by a French consultancy, Ecobilan, which is drawing up environmental criteria specifically for the eco-labelling scheme.

The study has now been under way for almost a year. In June, Ecobilan presented an EC meeting with a detailed inventory of the environmental impacts associated with the production, use and disposal of two water-based and two solvent-based paints. But it has yet to get to the stage of drafting labelling criteria. These are to be discussed at two further meetings in the autumn.

It is still not clear whether the French study will conclude that VOC emissions arising from the use of paint are the most important impact in the overall life cycle and hence should form the primary eco-labelling criterion. Consultium's report, which only touched briefly on other impacts, concluded that many low-VOC decorative paints have a lower toxicity and odour than their high-VOC competitors, and are unlikely to cause significant water pollution problems on disposal.

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