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The first five in the series of ISO 14000 Environmental Management System Standards are now published and companies worldwide are nudging into the ISO 14000 process.

ISO 14000 presents some benefits and possible problems for plastics manufacturers. On the one hand, the standard offers a managerial tool for organizing environmental efforts.

On the other hand, to get marketing benefits from the standard, companies may find themselves pressured into registration schemes of the sort they've encountered with ISO 9000. The Environmental Protection Agency is examining whether to offer some sort of incentives to those companies that comply with ISO 14000, but even that bonus has its down sides.

Like its predecessor, ISO 9000, the ISO 14000 series has been designed by the International Organization for Standardization for all industries worldwide. The aim is to help organizations manage and evaluate the environmental aspects of their operations without being prescriptive.

The ISO 14000 series is supposed to:

Provide a platform for companies to demonstrate commitment to environmental pro- tection.

Offer a means for management to pursue continual improvement in the environmental realm.

Provide a worldwide focus on environmental management.

Promote a voluntary consensus standards approach in the environmental area.

Harmonize national environmental rules, labels and methods.

Promote environmental predictability and consistency.

Demonstrate commitment to moving beyond regulatory environmental performance compliance.

Minimize environmental trade barriers.

Developers claim the 14000 series will offer potential relief from conflicting environmental regulations around the world. In the short run, though, the new standard is the cause of debate between U.S. industry groups that don't want to meet additional registration requirements, and a registration industry eager to gain new business.

The U.S. Registration Accreditation Board has already set up training programs for future registrars and lead auditors in the environmental management systems field even though there is no official mandate from industry or government requiring certification under the ISO 14000 standard.

In February, RAB announced the completion of a pilot accreditation program for ISO 14001 registrars. The following registrars achieved RAB registration:

Advanced Waste Management Systems of Hixson, Tenn.; DNV Certification Inc. of Houston; International Approval Services Inc. of Cleveland; KEMA-Registered Quality Inc. of Chalfont, Penn.; and SGS International Certification Services of Rutherford, N.J.

Although the technical management board of ISO in January voted to ``urgently'' study the integration of the ISO 9000 quality assurance standard and ISO 14000, there is no movement on the part of the RAB to integrate ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 registration at this time.

Joseph Dunbeck, chief executive officer of U.S. RAB, considers the issue of whether or not ISO will integrate ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 as ``relatively long-term,'' and something that will be accomplished ``on the ISO level not by an accreditation body. My personal sense is that this will be a matter of a minimum of a couple of years, and more likely two to five years.''

Assuming ISO eventually integrates both standards, Dunbeck says the next step is to seek response from national accreditation bodies.

Because U.S. industry has been pushing for cost savings on the registration front, Dunbeck says he expects some integration between ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 to take place on the registration level long before an actual integrated standard might be developed.

Most likely this will take the form of registrars conducting an audit for ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 activities ``at the same time as a client. The certificates would be separate, but the work would be done coincidentally. This offers reductions to the supplier or the organization,'' Dunbeck said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in the meantime, has been exploring some means of offering incentives for companies that earn ISO 14000 certification. However, EPA officials are still grappling with how this can work.

As EPA coordinator for ISO 14000 activity, Mary McKiel, explains that the agency is still ``heavily involved in doing pilot projects and seeing how these standards may be used to enhance [voluntary] environmental programs.''

McKiel, who is also vice chair of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO Technical Committee 207 — developer of the ISO 14000 standard — says the EPA is also exploring eco labeling and other programs designed to help companies manage their environmental systems.

``We're in the process of trying to put together an official agency statement on ISO 14000. It's not likely in the near future that EPA will do anything in regard to incentives with ISO 14001 [the basic standard],'' said McKiel.

She adds that the EPA is receiving a mixed message from industry.

Some industry members would like to earn some sort of EPA seal of approval or other incentive in tandem with earning an ISO 14000 certificate. Others fear that revealing the documentation ISO 14000 requires to EPA officials could lead to fines, or even litigation.

What does all this mean? Companies that enter the ISO 14000 certification process must be prepared to pay the price of registration aside from whatever investment they may have made for ISO 9000, at least for the next few years.

What role the EPA will play in this process is unknown. To offer input into this process it's best to contact representatives of the U.S. RAB in Milwaukee at (800) 952-6587, or the American National Standards Institute in New York at (212) 642-4900.

Zuckerman is co-owner of A-Z International Associates, an Amherst, Mass.-based consulting company.