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European standards: an opportunity to improve environmental protection

Standards determine technical aspects of products, production processes and services. They are normally used by industry on a voluntary basis, but widely taken up to ensure compatibility and inter-operability of products and processes. The Communication "The integration of environmental aspects into standardisation" (COM (2004) 130 final), adopted by the Commission on 25 February 2004, aims to encourage the three standardisation bodies in the EU - CEN, CENELEC and ETSI -, national standardisation bodies, public authorities, NGOs and business/industry groups, who are all involved in writing standards, to consider the environmental aspects of the subjects they cover in order to improve their environmental performance. This could significantly contribute to a high level of environmental protection and help us reach sustainable patterns of development.

What do we want to achieve?

The Communication was developed as a joint effort by the Commission's Directorates-General Environment and Enterprise in order to encourage action at the European level. This collaboration has ensured that the environment has been brought into focus while still respecting the fact that the use of standards is voluntary. The Communication concentrates on areas where there is consensus among the stakeholders in standardisation on how the progress can best be achieved:

  • Encouraging environmental thinking amongst the technical experts who write standards. This can be done, for example, by highlighting good examples of how an environmentally friendly standard has led to business benefits.
  • Prioritising the most important standards for the environment. In Europe, more than 13,500 standards have been published so far, and this number is growing. In order to make best use of resources, experts need to identify those standards that have most potential to improve the environmental performance of products, production processes and services.
  • Improving the participation of environmental experts and representatives of environmental interests in the Technical Committees that develop standards. Participation in these committees is open, but some groups may need more encouragement to get involved. For example, the Commission funds the European Environmental Citizens Organisation for Standardisation (ECOS) to ensure that environmental concerns are expressed and considered when standards are developed.
  • Increasing the use of environmental tools such as checklists, guides and helpdesks, all of which have already been put in place by the standards bodies themselves. But incentives need to be found to motivate standards writers to use these tools.

If standards are written in a way which takes the environment into account, then any products or services produced in accordance with them will have an improved environmental performance. For example, there are already standards for nearly all major household electrical appliances, which mainly deal with the safety aspects of these products. However, some of the standards also deal with energy efficiency and recyclability, which helps minimise the environmental impacts. Increasing the number and use of green standards is an opportunity for them to help protect the environment, which should not be missed.

What are standards?

Worldwide, standards are documented, voluntary agreements, which establish important criteria for products, services and processes. Standards exist at national, international and supranational levels, such as the European level. They determine technical aspects by influencing design, manufacture, packaging, use and end of life stages of products. Standards help to make sure that products and services are fit for their purpose and are comparable and compatible. For example, standards can make sure that cartridges fit printers, that wrenches fit bolts, that products are safe, etc. Usually, standards are widely adhered to since companies benefit from the compatibility and inter-operability of products, services and processes.

For a standard to be European, it has to be adopted by one of the three European standards organisations below and be publicly available:

  • CEN (European Committee for Standardisation) deals with all sectors except the electrotechnology and telecommunication sectors.
  • CENELEC (European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation) deals with standards in the eletrotechnical field.
  • ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) covers the telecommunications field and some aspects of broadcasting.

As a principle, anyone who has an interest in, or will be affected by, a European standard can contribute in some way to its development. People can either work at the national level to shape their country's input to the European work, or they can represent their views directly within one of the three standards bodies at the European level. One of the key aims of the European standards organisations is that the experts participating in their work should be representative and come from a variety of backgrounds, including industry, government, academic and special interest groups. This helps to ensure that standards are accepted and used when they are published.

European standards are developed when there is a significant industry, market or public need. For example, industry may need a standard for reasons of compatibility and inter-operability. The public might benefit from a standard which improves the quality and safety of a product or service. Furthermore, European standards can be developed to support European legislation or even to show compliance with it. For example, standards can translate legal requirements of single market legislation into practical technical specifications. In fact, most standards are developed for a combination of reasons and give many different benefits to a variety of stakeholders.