Appendix 1 - Understanding Environmental Terminology

This Appendix includes the environmental terminology that is regularly encountered when reviewing environmentally preferable goods and services. Some terminology has a standardized meaning and can require certification prior to being used by suppliers. Others are more generic and can be meaningless, unless a specific standard is cited to back up the claim. It is also important to note that some environmental features can be achieved by compromising others: for example, a product that shows high durability may contain more hazardous materials or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than lower durability competitors. It is therefore important to understand the overall environmental qualities of a product, and not only individual features.

The following points should be considered when reviewing environmental claims:

  • Be wary of 'generic' environmental claims that are unregulated or ill defined.
  • Encourage suppliers to highlight environmental product attributes.
  • Validate supplier claims by checking for certification, and asking for proof of environmental attributes, such as standards and methods used to reduce environmental impacts.

3Rs - Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

The 3Rs are a basic methodology that can be applied to almost any activity or purchase. They are hierarchical, with 'reduce' being the most important, followed by 'reuse' and 'recycle'. Recycling has no impact on consumption (of finished products), whereas the first two options do. The 3Rs are applicable to deciding if an item needs to be purchased as well as which item to choose.

  • Reduce - Do we really need it or can we find an alternative?
  • Reuse - Can we find a surplus item or upgrade an existing item?
  • Recycle - Purchase products that can be recycled or contain recycled content.

For example:

Reducing the actual use of fine paper is the most effective way of saving money and resources, while re-use of old paper further slows down the rate at which new paper is consumed. At a cost of $600 to $1000 per tonne of fine paper, savings add up quickly. Finally, recycling used paper reduces environmental impact and can generate profits, too: a tonne of paper earns revenues from the sale of the material, as well as realizes savings by eliminating the need to haul the material to landfill. These revenues and savings are offset by the costs of collection.

Degradable

A degradable material is one that breaks down in such a way that the resulting materials can be easily assimilated into the environment, without having any significant negative impact on the environment. Degradability claims on package labels usually refer to biodegradability and/or photodegradability. While many materials are ultimately degradable, the conditions under which these materials are disposed of, usually through landfill, may hinder the degradation process. Generally, light must be present in order for a product to photodegrade, while biological degradation requires oxygen to be present. Neither light nor oxygen is readily available in conventional landfills. Therefore, a supplier's claim of degradability only has value if the disposal conditions are appropriate for degradation to occur. Furthermore, if a product is only partly degradable, those ingredients that are identified as degradable should comprise a significant part of the product.

Suppliers should cite specific standards when making claims of degradability. The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) and Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) publish degradability standards for a range of materiel, including plastics and chemicals. For example, ASTM standard 6400 sets out criteria (60% degraded within 180 days) that plastics must meet to be considered compostable.

Durable

By definition, durable means useful for a long period; resisting wear, decay, etc. Durable products are environmentally preferred, in principle, because they can be reused or upgraded, they keep resources from landfill, and reduce the need for the consumption of raw materials. However, there are no set criteria for durability. When a supplier claims that a product is more durable compared to competitors, ask for further information, such as the expected lifetime of the product, options for reuse and/or upgrade, and availability of replaceable parts that prevent disposal in the event of a breakdown. Consider the claim of durability in the context of degradability and hazardous materials. Some durable products may not ultimately degrade upon disposal or contain chemicals that slow the rate of wear and are ultimately harmful to the environment and/or human health.

Environmentally Preferable, Environmentally Safe, Environmentally Friendly, Green

In the Policy on Green Procurement, 'environmentally preferable' goods and services are defined as 'those that have a lesser or reduced impact on the environment over the life cycle of the good or service, when compared with competing goods or services serving the same purpose.'

As a product label, however, the terms environmentally 'preferred', 'safe' or 'friendly' have no standard definition. The same is true for terms such as 'environmentally responsible' or 'green'. Therefore, this claim can be meaningless, unless specific environmental standards are cited. Suppliers should be requested to provide complete information as to why they deem their product to be environmentally preferable to its competitors.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GhGs)

Greenhouse gases include any of the atmospheric gases that contribute to the 'greenhouse effect'. The greenhouse effect is the trapping of heat within the earth's atmosphere, by atmospheric gases, and is the cause of global warming. The greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), halogenated fluorocarbons (HCFCs) , ozone (O3), perfluorinated carbons (PFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Emissions and accumulation of these gases in the atmosphere are caused by the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal, etc.) and the release of some manmade chemicals. Reduction in emissions of these gases is being targeted to prevent/reduce global warming.

Products and services that burn less fuel or consume less energy can claim that they have lower GHG emissions. The claim can be verified by looking at the product's or service's total fuel consumption, compared to its competitors. Some examples include:

  • A vehicle that has better fuel efficiency burns less fuel per km driven and therefore emits less greenhouse gases than a lower efficiency vehicle.
  • The less electricity an appliance uses, the less GhGs will need to be released to the atmosphere by coal-fired electricity generating stations.
  • The better insulated a building is, the less heat is lost to the exterior and therefore the less fuel burned to maintain comfortable temperatures. As a result, the building will cause the emissions of less greenhouse gases than one that is poorly insulated.

Hazardous Materials

Generally speaking, products considered "hazardous" are dangerous to human health. The two most common Canadian references to hazardous materials can be found in the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) and the Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) Act. Industrial suppliers must provide Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which provide information regarding the risks of using a product and precautions to be taken to safely use, store and dispose of such products. However, only products for use in an industrial setting are regulated by WHMIS and TDG.

The Hazardous Products Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labeling Act regulate the labeling of consumer products, for use in both industrial settings and by consumer households. Consumer products that can pose a safety risk are marked as being flammable, corrosive, poisonous or explosive.

Product specifications should be checked for hazardous material content. Replacement options that contain no hazardous materials should be considered. If non-hazardous options are not feasible, compare available options to identify those with the lowest hazardous material content. Ensure that appropriate use and disposal arrangements exist, to ensure that the product can be safely used and discarded.

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ISO Registered

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies. The ISO 14001 standard is being used by organizations around the world to develop Environmental Management Systems (EMS). An EMS provides a framework for managing environmental responsibilities efficiently and supports their integration into overall business operations. An organization may simply base their EMS on the standard or it may choose to become officially registered to the standard, in which case it must periodically undergo audits by an ISO 14001 "registrar". The establishment of EMSs based on this standard ensures that companies are managing the environmental impacts of their operations.

ISO 14020 to 14024 eco-labeling standards address product labeling, environmental claims made by suppliers, and the standardization of environmental terminology.

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Non-Toxic

Toxicity is defined as "the inherent potential or capacity of a material to cause adverse effects in a living organism". (State of the Environment Report, 1991). There is little value or consistency to the 'non-toxic' label, unless backed up by a certification. The certification standards cited should be reviewed to better understand the meaning of the 'non-toxic' claim.

When comparing 'non-toxic' products to conventional products, ask the supplier to specifically indicate what makes their product non-toxic. For example, non-toxic markers do not contain xylene and toluene, two substances specifically named as "hazardous" by Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS) standards (see WHMIS website). The Canadian Environmental Protection Act maintains a list of Priority Substances that are deemed toxic to the environment.

Ozone Friendly

The ozone (O3) layer protects the Earth against UV radiation. A class of chemicals known as halocarbons is used in packaging, foam, and as solvents, propellants and refrigerants. They are particularly harmful to the ozone layer, interacting with and destroying it. This allows harmful UV radiation to pass through to the Earth's surface.

There is no set definition of 'ozone-friendly' but it is generally intended to indicate that a product is free of chemicals, typically halocarbons, which damage the ozone layer. The most commonly cited examples, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), have been banned in industrialized countries since 1996. However, replacement substances, such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), are still in use, have some potential to deplete the ozone layer, and should be avoided wherever possible.

A useful product label, which is controlled by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), indicates, "Contains no CFCs or other ozone depleting substances. Federal regulations prohibit CFC propellants in aerosols". The EPA maintains a list of ozone depleting substances and this label allows the identification of products that do not contain these substances. The label is most frequently found on cleaning products.

Products containing non-ozone-depleting substitutes should be considered preferable over those that deplete ozone. It is important to note that replacements do exist. For example, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), can be used as a refrigerant, in place of HCFCs.

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Recycled Content: Post-commercial/Pre-consumer

Recycled content is the portion of a product, by weight or volume, which is composed of materials recovered for recycling. Packaging can also have recycled content, usually measured by weight. Products containing recycled content have a positive environmental impact because they divert waste material from landfill and can reduce energy consumption by re-processing recycled materials, rather than using virgin resources.

There are two types of recycled material:

Pre-consumer material indicates material recycled prior to use by the consumer, i.e., industrial scrap material left over from an industrial process that is not capable of being reused or reprocessed within the same plant or process (e.g. Boxboard trim). To make an appropriate "pre-consumer" recycled content claim, a supplier must be able to substantiate that the pre-consumer material would otherwise have gone into the solid waste stream.

Post-commercial materials are generated by commercial and institutional facilities, or households. They can no longer be used for their intended purpose and are separated from the waste stream for recycling. Post-use material excludes the in-plant reutilization of materials, such as re-work, re-grind, re-pulp, or scrap materials generated within the plant and capable of being reused within the process that generated it.

Recyclable

When an item is recycled, it is separated from the solid waste stream, diverted from landfill and re-processed into a new product through an established recycling program. A claim of recyclability should make clear to consumers whether it refers to the product, the package, or both.

To determine if a product is recyclable, information on recycling facilities and processes is needed. Many products may be recyclable in principle but without local processing facilities they will be directed to landfill. Equally important is the existence of a recycling system in the workplace.

CSA and ISO standards attempt to define the term 'recyclability', by requiring that a recyclable claim be made only if the material in question is currently being accepted at "reasonable" levels for recycling. An industry benchmark for the claim of recyclability is that "at least one third (1/3) of the population in the area where the product is distributed has convenient access to collection or drop-off facilities for recycling".

Resource Efficient

Resources include raw materials such as timber, minerals and metals, water and energy sources. Resource efficiency means that resources are used in the most productive and economical way possible, keeping quantities consumed and waste to a minimum. Ideally an item should be resource-efficient throughout its life –from design and manufacture through to use and disposal. When assessing resource efficiency, consider elements such as energy consumption during delivery, use and disposal, features that reduce energy, fuel or water use, capacity of product (e.g., is it larger than necessary to meet the need?), waste generation during use, and quantity of packaging.

NRCan's Office of Energy Efficiency cites the following example of energy efficient light bulbs: One 11 watt compact fluorescent bulb will replace a standard 60 watt bulb in terms of amount of light, and the compact fluorescent will last 10,000 hours – the same amount of time as 10 regular bulbs. The fluorescent bulb costs about $20 more than the 10 standard bulbs, but there is a savings of $37 in energy cost over the life of the fluorescent bulb (using a cost of 8 cents/kWh). Net savings associated with the fluorescent bulb is therefore $17. This also represents a 75% reduction in energy consumption. Additional benefits are realized in the reduction of materials for manufacturing, packaging and transportation costs.

It should be noted that fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, a hazardous material. While the energy savings is valuable, a proper handling and recycling program must be in place to ensure that improper disposal does not result in environmental damage or safety issues for workers.

VOC

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) change rapidly from a liquid state to a gaseous state when exposed to air. VOC vapours react with oxides of nitrogen in the presence of sunlight to produce low level ozone, an air pollutant and a contributor to smog. Indoors, VOCs can adversely impact indoor air quality, a measurement of the quality of air in a particular building based on the concentration of chemicals, particulates and other elements harmful to human health. Sources of VOCs include off-gassing from furniture, carpets, printers, cleaning products, markers and paint fumes. Products that contain fewer VOCs are generally better for the environment. For example, paints that are water-based, contain no heavy metals or formaldehyde and contain less than 25 g/l of VOCs, have fewer air emissions than standard paints and are considered environmentally preferable.

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