ISO 14001: Misconceptions and Challenges

An issue that The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. (SPI) is working closely with its members on is ISO 14001. In seminars and publications, the U.S. plastics industry trade association is keeping its members informed on this new standard.

Understanding the Standard

ISO 14001 is an international voluntary standard that specifies the minimum elements for an environmental management system. It was published in 1996 by the International Organization for Standardization and is being taken up by organizations throughout the world at varying speeds.

The above is accepted as true by most people who are aware of the standard. Beyond these simple facts, however, there are many misconceptions about ISO 14001. For instance:

ISO 14001 will be a requirement for all companies.
As with ISO 9000, conformance to ISO 14001 may become a condition of doing business in certain countries, regions or markets. This process already has begun in some industrial sectors, such as the automotive and electronics markets. However, there are still a tremendous number of companies in business today that do not conform to ISO 9000, even though that standard is now 13 years old. Thus it is too early to tell how widely ISO 14001 will be required in the future.

Implementing ISO 14001 means getting a registration.
Many suppliers choose to demonstrate conformance to ISO 14001 through third-party certification. Some customers may require this. However, the standard itself considers a company's self-declaration of conformance as an acceptable alternative. Further, some companies simply use the ISO 14001 model for internal purposes as a means to enhance their environmental performance.

ISO 14001 is just paperwork and won't really help my company.
ISO 14001 is like many things in life - you get out of it what you put into it. The way a company implements the standard determines what benefits it receives. Many companies that have implemented ISO 14001 report a variety of benefits, including improved environmental performance, greater operating efficiency, cost reduction, improved employee awareness and enhanced public image, among others.

Implementing ISO 14001 means throwing out our current environmental programs.
ISO 14001 criteria specify "what to do," not "how to do it." Implementation approaches vary widely. There is no reason to think that your existing approach to environmental management must be put aside to satisfy ISO 14001.

Tackling Environmental Aspects

Ask a company that has implemented ISO 14001 which element was the most challenging, and they will likely say "Section 4.3.1: Environmental Aspects." Ask this same company which element turned out to be the most rewarding and they might give you the same answer.

What does the standard require?
ISO 14001 defines an "environmental aspect" as an "element of an organization's activities, products or services that can interact with the environment." A note that follows this definition states that a significant environmental aspect is, logically, one that has or can have significant environmental impacts.

Section 4.3.1 requires that a company identify the environmental aspects of its products, activities and services in order to determine those that have or can have significant impacts on the environment. The standard also requires that this information be kept up-to-date.

While this concept may sound relatively simple, it often is difficult to implement. What some companies see as flexibility, others view as a lack of guidance on this important requirement.

It is important to note that a company is responsible only for identifying and assessing those environmental aspects that it can control and over which it can be expected to have an influence. This can be a relatively subjective determination. For example, can a company "control or influence" the potential misuse of its product by another party?

Why are environmental aspects so important?
Determining significant environmental aspects is a critical process step, since this determination is linked to many other elements of the standard. For example, significant aspects must be considered when setting environmental objectives and targets. Similarly, significant environmental aspects and related impacts must be factored into a company's training program, the development of operational controls and the development of monitoring programs, to name a few ISO 14001 elements. For this reason, the determination of significant aspects can affect the overall effectiveness of an environmental management system.

What should your company do?
As noted previously, ISO 14001 specifies "what to do," not "how to do it." Approaches to determining significant environmental aspects vary widely. However, here are a few suggestions that SPI is offering its members:

  • First, make a list of your manufacturing processes, products and other activities. These can be grouped for ease of analysis.
  • Next, identify the ways in which these processes, products and other activities might interact with the environment. Such interactions include air emissions, generation of hazardous wastes and energy uses, among others.
  • Establish a set of criteria that you can use to assess the environmental significance of these impacts. Criteria might include the likelihood of impacts, the severity of the impacts, the frequency and duration of the impacts and their geographic scope.
  • Use a cross-functional team to implement this process.
  • Figure out what information you have on hand that can be used in this analysis. Useful sources might include MSDS, permits, environmental assessments and monitoring data, among others.

As you go through this process, you probably will find that some of your environmental aspects are regulated in some manner. However, you also might identify some significant aspects that are "beyond regulation." Many companies find that such unregulated aspects are where their best cost-saving opportunities lie.

Obviously, environmental aspects are not the only challenges related to this new standard, and a great deal of information is needed to meet those challenges and take advantage of the standard's benefits.

*The above information was taken from articles written by Phil Stapleton of Glover-Stapleton Associates, (410) 827-7232; e-mail gloverstap@dmv.com. A consultant to SPI, Mr. Stapleton also is a member of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group on ISO 14000 and one of the U.S. delegates to Technical Committee 207.

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