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A New Eco-Directive?

European Commission Raises the Bar with Green Materials Standards

by Helen Delaney

W ith the development of a draft directive, the European Commission is attempting cradle-to-grave environmental regulation of electrical and electronic equipment. Helen Delaney points out that this materials-level legislation should be watched to monitor its implications for future EC directives.

By now, serious exporters in the United States are familiar with the New Approach to legislation in the European Union. Until now, such legislation dealt primarily with health and safety issues related to final products. Governing products with “essential requirements” and featuring standards developed in the private sector by the European standards bodies (the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI)), the New Approach laws cover either product families (like medical devices and toys) or risks (like electromagnetic disturbances and electrical hazards). Having made significant headway into the “Europeanization” of health and safety laws and standards, the European Commission now turns its attention to the environment.

The greening of Europe isn’t new. Member States, particularly Germany, have made impressive strides, but the care and management of the European environment has been on the Commission’s “to do” list since the establishment of the Internal Market. The electrical and electronic equipment industry, a sector whose aggregate annual output is estimated at several hundred billion euro, and a sector whose products can undoubtedly have a profound effect on the environment, presents a huge market to regulate. There have been initiatives, but nothing far-reaching or coherent. For example, there is WEEE, the proposal on Waste from Electric and Electronic Equipment; RoHS, a measure relating to dangerous/noxious substances; and there is EMAS (Environmental Management and Audit Regulation) and Eco-Labeling. (1)

A New Eco-Directive

But last year, the European Commission, in a move showing that environmental issues are now high on the political agenda and Euro-coherence is the order of the day, put forth a draft proposal for a directive on the environmental impact of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). The proposed eco-directive is also aimed at heading off a whole series of Member State environmental measures, which could become trade barrier nightmares for European companies as well as those from the United States.

The EEE draft is structured like a New Approach Directive, which means that companies will have to comply with essential requirements, that Harmonized European Standards (2) will give their products the presumption of conformity, (3) and that there are prescribed methods for conformity assessment. (In this proposal, the criteria for the Eco-Label can also provide the presumption of conformity.)

Although European Harmonized Standards confer a presumption of conformity with essential requirements, it must be remembered that New Approach Directives also allow for the use of other voluntary standards. There may be times when a Harmonized Standard will not exist for a particular material or a particular situation, or the company cannot change its manufacturing process to accommodate a Harmonized Standard. The aim of all New Approach Directives is compliance with the essential requirements, and if the manufacturer can make a case that his or her product does so, he or she may use whatever standard works—a standard developed by ASTM International, for example.

The proposed directive will require manufacturers (including manufacturers of components) to consider environmental factors at the design stage and throughout the life cycle of a product. Manufacturers will have to show that there has been an assessment of the environmental impact of a product throughout its life cycle. They will have to document specific design choices and the reasons behind them. One manufacturer will not be allowed to transfer environmental problems to another. Manufacturers of components, for example, will be required to furnish information on the material composition and the consumption of energy and/or resources of their products.

Throughout each phase of the life cycle, materials will be accounted for: the raw material acquisition, the predicted consumption of materials, the expected generation of waste material, and the possibilities for reuse, recycling and recovery of materials. The analysis of materials will become part of an ecological profile of the product. Based on this profile, manufacturers will be expected to “evaluate the opportunities” to improve the environmental performance of the product.

Mandatory Compliance

In many U.S. materials standards activities, and for the larger companies in this product sector, environmental performance is part and parcel of the process. Manufacturers know that consideration of the environment is good business. Consumers like it. But when environmental integration officially begins in Europe, that is, when the proposal becomes final, designing products with environmentally correct materials is going to lose its voluntary status. Everybody will have to comply, small businesses as well as large.

At a workshop last February in Brussels attended by government, environmental, and manufacturing representatives, standards bodies and others, the breakout group discussing standards got a healthy dose of reality when it tried to tackle the role of standards in the EEE. Holding at arms length the ISO standards on life cycle assessment, the group said it preferred instead to base the analysis of the environmental performance of products on what they called environmentally relevant inputs and outputs. They did stress, however, that the various terms should be used very carefully to avoid any confusion with the terminology of the ISO standards on Life Cycle Assessment; it was suggested that the term “environmental aspects” be used instead. The Commission seemed to lean more toward the management approach (which if adopted might require companies to adopt ISO 14000 environmental management standards), but admitted that product-specific mandated requirements are also a possibility.

As new standardization efforts are organized to meet the requirements of the EEE Directive, one of the first activities will be an inventory of existing relevant standards (including ISO standards). Some time later, environmental experts may be added to the mix of health and safety experts in standards committees, or they will form their own committees and develop a set of dedicated standards rather than having environmental requirements scattered in various standards made for other purposes. Checklists widely used by industry will be put forward to be progressed to standards. Common component and material coding standards will be used to identify components and materials that are suitable for re-use and recycling. The lifetimes of products will be optimized by standards for durability, reliability, and upgradability. The pros and cons of management standards vs. product standards will be debated. Environmental groups are already opposing the use of management standards, noting that they do not provide measurable data for the environmental performance of products. It’s a complex issue.

It Bears Watching

What seems to be sure is the need to gather data, which will certainly include the identification of hazardous and valuable materials and the environmental impact of materials in the product. The creation of international harmonized databases was widely supported, since suppliers are all over the world, but European data gathering schemes, such as that of the Association of European Plastic Manufacturers or the Swedish and the German Environment Agencies, will certainly do their part. At once, European companies raised competitiveness issues and suggested a mechanism to prevent access to data to “free riders” and to protect property rights.

Competition is fierce in this sector, and it’s a big one. The categories of electrical and electronic equipment covered by the proposed directive are electric domestic appliances, office machinery and computers, electrical machinery and apparatus, radio, television and communication equipment, medical, precision and optical instruments, watches and clocks, games and toys. Exporters all over the world use materials in these kinds of products that may come within the scope of ASTM standards or test methods. If those products are to be sold in Europe, those ASTM standards would do well to consider the requirements of the EEE. These may be outlined in more detail in the final directive or announced by the Commission in its standardization mandates. Standards, like products, also have market entry requirements.

Again, it is important to emphasize that in the European Union, neither the EEE nor any New Approach Directive prevents the use of ASTM standards in the manufacture of a material or the testing of it. And if the manufacturer can show, through technical documentation in most cases, that his product is in compliance with the law, he or she can use whatever standard makes the best business sense. U.S. companies need to be aware, though, that environmental concerns have raised the bar; and in Europe, there is going to be a new emphasis on materials standards, a new level of competition and comparison. As far as this new proposal is concerned, we do not know how the debate is going to come out, which path standardization is going to take. It bears watching.

There may be modifications to the draft, but the general feeling is that the EEE Directive will become a final proposal, perhaps as early as the end of this year. And this is just the beginning. If the EEE initiative is successful, the Commission will more than likely find the wherewithal to nudge its environmental policy into other product sectors. //


(1) Products Eco-Labeled carry a guarantee that their compliance with established ecological criteria has been tested by independent third parties, the national and regional Eco-Label Competent Bodies.
(2) A Harmonized Standard is one that has been 1) mandated by the European Commission specifically for the purpose of providing a technical solution to a New Approach Directive’s health and safety requirement and 2) developed by one of the European standardizing bodies (CEN, CENELEC, and ETSI).
(3) Once a Harmonized Standard is published in the Official Journal of the European Communities, national authorities must presume that goods manufactured in conformity with this standard conform to the relevant directive’s essential requirements.

Copyright 2002, ASTM

Helen Delaney is the president of Delaney Consulting, Inc., of Chevy Chase, Md. She is the former Washington representative and director of global affairs for ASTM and the former NIST standards expert to the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. She heads a consulting firm that specializes in standards and trade matters. She is also the instructor for ASTM International’s Training Course “Technical Requirements for Entry into the European Union.”