Just when plastics processors are getting used to the idea of ISO quality standards, along comes a new proposed series -ISO 14000 environmental management standards. Like its ISO 9000 cousin, the ISO 14000 series would provide an administrative benchmark for manufacturing and supplier companies.
Among other things, this framework would set uniform measures for environmental labeling and product life cycle assessment.
ISO 14000 proponents claim meeting worldwide environmental standards could help a company avoid unexpected audits by government environment authorities and lesser fines if environmental rules are broken.
They contend it will produce a system that will reduce waste, allow companies to identify all the environmental aspects of their business, improve their compliance and limit their liability.
They also point to the marketing opportunity and goodwill that comes from meeting such a standard.
Environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, believe a minimum environmental standard such as ISO 14000 will stop countries with low pollution standards from becoming ``pollution havens.''
Its opponents say ISO 14000 is important only for industries deeply involved in exporting. American critics note that while voluntary, the standards already are incorporated in the laws of European Union countries to the point of being de facto worldwide rules.
And ISO 14000 is expected to have only skimpy performance requirements, providing for simply a process to measure, analyze, assess and describe a company's environmental per-formance against agreed-upon criteria.
Efforts to produce ISO 14000 standards were begun in 1993. International Standards Organization committees plan to produce the standards by mid-1997 - a fast-track plan for the normally plodding institution. Five to seven years is not unusual in regular formation of ISO standards.
Later this month, technical committee members from around the world will meet in Oslo, Norway, to discuss the latest in environmental management harmonization.
The idea of environmental standards ``is industry-driven,'' said Caroline G. Hemenway, publisher of the International Environmental Systems Update newsletter in Fairfax, Va., and co-editor of a 40-page booklet titled ``What Is ISO 14000? Questions & Answers.''
``Industry needed a floor [for environmental standards]. U.S. industry especially likes the fact there is no ceiling'' under ISO 14000 standards as proposed, she said.
John Master, an engineer retired from Arco Chemical Co., chairs the U.S. delegation's Technical Advisory Group subcommittee on environmental performance evaluation.
Master is first to admit ISO 14000 is not a cure-all for chronic polluters. Certification, he said, ``is acceptance of responsibility'' for environmental management. It does not address levels of performance.
Master cited three reasons a company might become interested in getting ISO 14000 certification:
A commercial interest, ``For those who want to be seen as totally environmentally responsible.''
The permitting process. The Environmental Protection Agency is going to use ISO 14000, in particular 14001, in its movement toward voluntary initiatives as a supplement to its traditional environmental controls. He said EPA could streamline the environmental permit process, be more lenient in its oversight and be less severe in penalizing ISO 14000 firms that do pollute.
To cooperate with environmental interest groups. Both the Environmental Defense Fund and National Wildlife Federation ``are beginning to see there is value in an environmental management system,'' Master said.
Michael Levy, executive director of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Polystyrene Packaging Council, said the term ``standards'' connotes ``guidelines'' in the American mind, but ``regulations'' to Europeans.
``Europeans are far more willing to subject themselves to standardization and to disclose sensitive business information because they have not faced the same degree of prescriptive regulation and litigation as U.S. companies,'' said Levy, who serves as coordinator for ISO activities for SPI and the American Plastics Council, both based in Washington.
H. Patrick Toner, SPI's vice president for technical affairs, said he is monitoring the rules proposed for environmental package labeling in the development of ISO 14000.
Although ISO ``management guidelines are a long way from reaching past the resin companies'' now, it may be in many domestic companies' best interests to seek ISO 14000 certification because of their business ties to exporting customers.
As for performance standards, Toner said ``there is a difference of opinion'' among the ISO technical committee members over whether the standards should cover more completely the question of a company's pollution-abating performance.