Are eco labels in your future?

By: 
February 28, 1997

The wave of environmental consciousness that's
sweeping Europe and Asia may be headed
to the United States. For molders and designers,
especially those of computers and business
equipment, it means learning new environmental
lingo and molding products a little differently
than before.

The root of this ecological awareness starts with
eco labels. Tim Ullman is the manager for global
product stewardship and compliance programs at GE
Plastics (Pittsfield, MA) and spends a lot of time
thinking about eco labels. He says eco labels are
used predominantly in Europe and Japan right now;
they present OEMs with a set of standards for
energy use, material recyclability, and safety.
These standards can apply to products ranging from
dishwashers to diapers and lawn mowers to personal
computers. They stipulate guidelines for
ergonomics, electrostatic potential, height,
weight, durability, labeling, resin use, and a
myriad of other factors. After product testing,
OEMs who meet the standards set out by the eco
label they are pursuing are granted a certificate
or license and can display the eco logo on their
equipment. Though the label rarely carries the
weight of law, it is a marketing tool for many
OEMs.

There are about 12 organizations worldwide that
administer and distribute eco
labels
. Some labels are privately administered
with partial or full governmental financial
support; others are administered from a government
office. Eco labels are generally considered
voluntary, and by European Union (EU) law, their
use cannot be stipulated by member governments.
However, according to an analyst at a U.S.-based
computer manufacturer, European governments can
adopt some or all of the guidelines of an eco
label when purchasing equipment - a common
practice in Europe and Asia.

The U.S. eco label, Green Seal, is seven years old
and does not yet have guidelines affecting
computer and business equipment. Janet Hughes,
director of development at Green Seal, says the
Washington D.C.-based, nonprofit organization is
evaluating standards to affect information
technology equipment, but she does not expect them
before September 1997. The most established eco
label in the U.S., Energy Star, has become a
computer industry standard but only recommends
guidelines for energy use.

So, if you mold computer and business equipment
for European or Asian customers, eco labels could
play a larger role in your business - if they
don't already. But what do eco labels mean to
molders? Technically, not much, but economically
it could prove challenging. Most eco label
guidelines do not apply to molders, but almost
every eco label, according to Ullman, has one
common plastics thread: The use of halogens is
forbidden.

Most of the guidelines regarding halogens apply to
computers, printers, computer monitors, and other
such equipment. Specifically they prohibit the use
of brominated flame retardants that might emit
halogenated dioxins. Some guidelines also restrict
the use of chloroparaffins in cabling and
housings. Compliance with ISO 11469 is also
required of many of the eco label guidelines.

While finding and molding a flame-retardant,
halogen-free resin may not be particularly
difficult, Tom Hablitzel, manager of computer
products at GE Plastics, says such materials are
generally more expensive than halogen-based
grades. For one market that is already highly
marginalized, information technology, added costs
in the form of pricier resins will put more
pressure on designers and molders to be more
efficient. "It could have a big influence on
materials specified for certain applications,"
Hablitzel says. "The initiative will be to take
that cost out through thinner walls."

Ullman also points out that he knows of no
supplier right now that makes a commercial
flame-retardant ABS that is halogen-free. He says
this may force many molders to use a
flame-retardant, halogen-free PC/
ABS instead - which may or may not be desirable.

Molders may also be challenged by the fact that
eco labels are not standardized from country to
country. What may be true for one country and
label may be slightly different or nonexistent for
another. "While the Blue Angel label may have
meaning in Germany, it may have lesser value in
the U.K.," Hablitzel says. Ullman and Hablitzel
say that molders should be able to develop a
strategy that allows them to make parts that
comply in spite of slight variations among labels;
but if variations are too great, a molder could
find himself with a split personality - molding
the same computer monitor with different materials
to comply with different guidelines in different
countries. The EU is attempting to harmonize eco
labels in Europe; however, Ullman points out that
getting every European country on one eco label
may be as difficult as getting all of Europe on
one currency.

The ultimate impact of eco labels, according to an
analyst for a U.S.-based computer manufacturer,
may rely on consumers, not governments. The
analyst says his research shows that consumers
want products that are kinder and gentler to the
environment, even if they don't know what an eco
label is. He says, "Right now you can look at eco
labels as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
He says every eco label wants to have the
credibility that Underwriters Laboratories gives
to the customer. Eco labels are not there yet, but
their credibility is growing, he says. - Jeff
Sloan

Eco label web
sites

  • href="http://www.fiz-karlsruhe.de/peu/clima/clima3
    .stm">Blue Angel
  • href="http://www.interchg.vbl.ca/ecolabel/gen.stm"
    >Global Ecolabeling
  • href="http://www.greenseal.org">NetworkGreen
    Seal

CELLSPACING="2" CELLPADDING="0"
HEIGHT="234">
SIZE="+4" FACE="Arial MT Condensed Light">Major
eco labels


HEIGHT="37">

FACE="Arial">Country

HEIGHT="37">

FACE="Arial">Name

HEIGHT="37">

FACE="Arial">Guidelines addressed



VALIGN="TOP">Canada
VALIGN="TOP">Ecologo/Environmental
Choice Program
VALIGN="TOP">CFCs


VALIGN="TOP">Germany
VALIGN="TOP">ECO
Circle

Test Mark
VALIGN="TOP">Cadmium,
lead, vinyl chloride, chloroparaffins,
brominated retardants,
carcinogens


VALIGN="TOP">Germany
VALIGN="TOP">Blue
Angel
VALIGN="TOP">Chlorine,
bromine, carcinogens, cadmium, lead,
chloroparaffins


VALIGN="TOP">Japan
VALIGN="TOP">ECO
Mark
VALIGN="TOP">CFCs,
toxic emissions


VALIGN="TOP">Netherlands
VALIGN="TOP">Milieudeur
VALIGN="TOP">Chlorine,
bromine, carcinogens


VALIGN="TOP">Nordic
VALIGN="TOP">Nordic
Environmental Label/White Swan
VALIGN="TOP">CFCs,
cadmium, lead, chloroparaffins, PBDEs


VALIGN="TOP">Singapore
VALIGN="TOP">Green
Labeling Scheme
VALIGN="TOP">Energy
only, references Blue Angel


VALIGN="TOP">Sweden
VALIGN="TOP">TCO
'95
VALIGN="TOP">Chlorine,
bromine, chlorinated solvents, mercury,
CFCs


VALIGN="TOP">Taiwan
ROC
VALIGN="TOP">Green
Mark
VALIGN="TOP">CFCs


VALIGN="TOP">United
States
Green Seal
VALIGN="TOP">None yet

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