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Article related to: People and perspectives
How "green" is green?
Consumers increasingly want products and services with a low environmental footprint and companies want to showcase their green credentials. But how do we know if one product or service is greener than another – and what does this have to do with REACH? We spoke with two experts who can answer these questions.
If you go to a supermarket to buy a detergent, you will find products on the shelves with different green labels. But what do they all mean? What if there was an easy way to compare products and see which one causes the least harm to the environment?
Comparing green products
Rana Pant and Erwan Saouter, from the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission, work on a project about life-cycle assessment and product environmental footprint. “In the life-cycle assessment and product environmental footprint project, we are not trying to make an absolute assessment of one product, but rather to tell if one product is 'greener' than another,” Dr Pant, Team leader in the Bio-Economy Unit at the JRC, explains.
Under REACH, we talk about hazardous chemicals and using them safely. When it comes to life-cycle assessment and a product environmental footprint, other concepts are used. “Life-cycle assessment is not about bringing safer products to market. It aims to have more products on the market that have a lower impact on the environment and human health. In other words, two products on the supermarket shelf may both be perfectly safe, but one of them releases fewer toxins and/or contains fewer compounds of concern than another,” Dr Saouter, Scientific Officer at the JRC, points out.
“There are over 400 green labels currently used in Europe, all saying different things and all based on different calculations. Sometimes, there is a qualitative assessment behind them; sometimes semi-quantitative,” Dr Saouter points out. Having one single scheme where products could be compared could help promote understanding about their environmental performance and would be a huge benefit for the whole of European society.
Where to find high quality data?
To be able to compare two products, the information about the substances they contain needs to be comparable. This is one of the big challenges in life-cycle assessment. “There are potentially around 30 000 chemicals used on the EU market today and they can end up in computers, food products, and shampoo, just to name a few. Finding reliable and comparable data on 30 000 chemicals is a nightmare,” Dr Saouter says.
So this is where the REACH data steps in. Companies manufacturing or importing substances into the EU need to compile and submit a registration dossier to ECHA to be able to continue using their substance. Registrants need to collect all physicochemical, toxicological and ecotoxicological information on their substance as well as information on its use, exposure and risk management measures. The amount of required information depends on the quantity of the manufactured or imported substance per year.
There are two main reasons why REACH data plays an important role in the JRC project. First, chemicals manufactured or imported at or over one tonne per year must be registered. Since standard data requirements apply, in principle, the data for each chemical should be available. Second, since the data already exists, why not use it? “Industry has spent a lot of time and money on generating information to comply with REACH. It would not make sense to use other data. So, we decided to build on the information that has already been provided,” Dr Saouter says.
Data is complicated
However, it requires more than simply taking all the REACH data and using it for the environmental footprint project as it is. ECHA supports the JRC by analysing and interpreting the REACH data for their purposes. Also, some of the REACH data is confidential which needs to be considered when putting the data together. “I was not aware of the level of expertise that you need to make the right selection from the REACH data to get consistent and robust information,” Dr Pant says.
Without the REACH data, the information available for the project would have been much more limited. “We would have needed to have more of a ‘patchwork’ approach to find the best data and use many different sources and tools. This would mean an inconsistent picture in terms of data quality,” Dr Pant explains and continues, “in the world of life-cycle assessment or environmental footprint, where you are comparing different products and the emissions of different chemicals and their toxicity, it gets very difficult if you don’t have consistent data”.
Who benefits and how?
According to Dr Pant, companies who are serious about manufacturing products with a lower environmental footprint are in a difficult position because the market is flooded with labels and green claims that maybe false or unverifiable. Furthermore, because there is currently no single trusted way of comparing the environmental friendliness of products, they may not get the return for their efforts on the market. Work to evaluate if and how the environmental footprint can be used to improve communication to consumers on the environmental performance of one product compared to another has just started.
According to Dr Saouter, having more data available for projects such as this, also helps companies come to a new understanding. “They start to understand what the overall impact of their product is. They find out how their product ranks compared to others and they realise that theirs may not be the best,” he concludes.
Use the REACH data for your research too
As of March 2017, ECHA has made key information on around 15 000 chemicals available as a downloadable IUCLID 6 database.
This data is particularly useful for researchers, regulatory authorities and businesses and can be used, for example, to improve the safe use of chemicals.
Did you know?
Life-cycle assessment is a quantitative tool that helps assess the environmental sustainability of products and organisations. It is a systematic approach to assessing goods and services, in terms of their environmental and human health impact, and resource consumption. It considers the full life cycle of a product, from the raw materials, processing, transport, retail and use through to recycling and waste management.
Source: Joint Research Centre – European Platform for Life Cycle Assessment
Single market for green products
The aim of the product environmental footprint pilot project is to distinguish green products and organisations from those that are less green, based on a robust, comprehensive and harmonised method. It is a European Commission initiative.
The pilot project covers around 24 product categories or industrial sectors ranging from batteries, paints, detergents, IT equipment, t-shirts, leather, olive oil, pasta and wine. It continues until the end of 2017.
Product environmental footprint pilot project
Single market for green products initiative
Interview by Päivi Jokiniemi
Top image: JRC. In the picture Erwan Saouter.
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