The ISO 14001 standard sets requirements for environmental management systems (EMS). Some of these requirements are central to the effectiveness of an EMS. These include the requirements for measures to deal with risks and opportunities, especially with regard to the significant environmental aspects of a company. In the following article, our standards expert shows a possible approach to standard-compliant implementation.
- Significant environmental aspects in environmental management
- What are the key requirements of the standard?
- Environmental aspects in life cycle assessment
- General approach
- Examples of environmental aspects
- Identifying and evaluating environmental aspects
- Evaluation matrix and evaluation criteria
- DQS: What we can do for you
What are significant environmental aspects in environmental management?
The technical term is actually not self-explanatory, which is why the well-known environmental standard ISO 14001 provides the following definition:
"Environmental aspect: element of an organization’s activities or products or services that interacts or can interact with the environment".
ISO 14001:2015 - Environmental management systems - Requirements with guidance for use.
Accordingly, the comments on the definition add - and this is the crucial point - that an environmental aspect is only an environmental aspect if it has, or at least can have, one or more environmental impacts. The rule here is that the more significant an environmental aspect is, the more significant its impact on the environment may be.
According to this definition, practically every type of corporate activity is subject to more or less significant environmental aspects. In a broader sense, for example, the sending of a parcel already has an environmental aspect. What may not be of concern in an individual case can, however, become a significant environmental aspect when parcels are sent en masse (for example, in a mail-order business).
What are the key requirements of the standard?
Chapter 6.1.2 of ISO 14001 specifies the requirements with regard to environmental aspects.
The company must first identify and evaluate its environmental aspects and associated environmental impacts, taking into account the inputs and outputs of materials and energy and all realistic operating conditions, within the scope of the EMS.
The next step is to identify those environmental aspects that cause or can cause a significant change in the environment and are therefore relevant for the environmental management system. It is essential that your company can control or at least influence the identified environmental aspects.
Environmental aspects in the life cycle assessment
At the same time, the environmental standard requires that the life cycle of both products and services be taken into account when determining the environmental aspects. For example, this can also include environmental aspects along with environmental impacts resulting from the treatment of products at the end of their life cycle - possibly long after your product has left the company. Of course, the beginning of the life cycle also plays a role here, keywords here being, for example, the procurement of raw materials or components for a product.
However, the standard requirements do not include the preparation of a proper eco-balance of products or services. A.6.1.2 in the annex to ISO 14001 states that "careful consideration" of the individual stages of the life cycle over which the company can exert an influence is sufficient.
However, the standard does not specify exactly what "careful consideration" means. Each company or organization must decide this for themselves, taking into account their specific situation.
Determine environmental aspects: General approach
It is not necessary to analyze every raw material, every single product or every single activity in the course of a service for relevance as a possible environmental aspect. Rather, your company can group or categorize activities, products and services in a meaningful way, but only if there are common significant characteristics.
"The management of environmental aspects is referred to as environmental performance according to ISO 14001:2015."
ISO 14001:2015, chap. 3.4.11
Finally, your organization needs to determine whether any relevant aspects arise from these characteristics, what significant environmental impacts may result, and how environmental performance can be improved. ISO 14001 makes suggestions in the Annex under A.6.1.2 as to which environmental aspects might be considered in this regard. However, this "checklist" is neither complete nor do the aspects mentioned apply equally to every company and organization.
Examples of environmental aspects
- Emissions to the atmosphere
- Discharges to water
- Contamination of soils
- Consumption of raw materials and natural resources
- Consumption and release of energy
- Generation of waste
- Consumption of land
This list identifies higher-level environmental aspects that may need to be broken down further. For example, the consumption of raw materials is always preceded by the extraction and transport of these raw materials. This again results in individual environmental aspects that can only be partially controlled, but possibly influenced.
The above-mentioned consideration of the life cycle of a product or service thus plays an essential role in determining indirect or direct environmental aspects. Consideration must also be given to third-party products and services that are incorporated into the company's activities.
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Identify and evaluate environmental aspects in environmental management
To identify the significant environmental aspects in the company, the ISO standard does not specify a method that environmental management officers (EMB) could follow. The annex states, "There is no specific method for determining significant environmental aspects, however, the method and criteria established should provide consistent results."
A good place to start is to distinguish environmental aspects with respect to all operating conditions (intended and unintended) and by direct and indirect aspects. This is best done along the examples of possible environmental aspects given in the checklist above. It makes sense to consider the possible resulting environmental impacts at the same time.
"Environmental aspects need not only have negative environmental impacts - they can also have positive consequences."
To evaluate whether an environmental aspect is significant, environmental criteria must be defined. These environmental criteria must each be ranked according to the type of environmental aspect and the severity of the potential environmental impact. It should be noted that an environmental aspect that may not appear significant at first glance can become significant through the application of additional criteria. This should be the case, for example, with regard to legal obligations or concerns of interested parties.
In connection with the identification of significant environmental aspects, ISO 14001 speaks not only of those that have an adverse environmental impact, but also of those that have a positive impact on the environment. This is the case whenever a company initiates relevant activities, such as improving water or soil quality or raising environmental awareness through training.
Evaluation matrix and evaluation criteria
The identification of significant environmental aspects should be process-oriented and based on an input-output analysis, possibly broken down into organizational (including spatial) units. For such an analysis, suitable key indicators are required, for example by means of measurements. With the help of these indicators, incoming material flows and outgoing material flows can be determined and quantified.
Incoming material flows - examples
Energy, water, raw materials, auxiliary materials, etc.
Outgoing material flows - examples
Products, waste, emissions, waste water, waste heat, etc.
The ABC method, which is quite easy to implement, can be used for regular evaluation of the direct and indirect environmental aspects identified. It presents the relevance for your environmental management system in three categories:
- A: very problematic
- B: moderately problematic
- C: unproblematic
The criteria on which this classification is based could look something like this: Relevance with regard to
- Legal requirements
- Social requirements
- Adverse effect on the environment (normal condition / incident)
- Environmental costs
- Upstream and downstream processes
- Resource consumption
For example "social demands":
A: Ongoing (justified) criticism from interested parties
B: Warnings of downplaying / demands for tighter regulations
C: No significant criticism from the general public
Once the assignment of relevance (importance) has been made for all of the above criteria, the overall result can be transferred to a matrix, for example a heat map, which indicates the importance of an environmental aspect based on the previously defined coloring. Assignment in a point system can also be helpful.
The conclusions your company draws from the identification and evaluation of the significant aspects depend on the consideration of possible risks and opportunities for the environmental management system resulting from the results.
Environmental aspects also in EMAS
The identification of significant environmental aspects is not a unique feature of the ISO 14001 standard, however. The European Union's environmental management seal of approval, EMAS (Eco-Management and Audit Scheme), also imposes this requirement in the course of the so-called environmental statement. Here, significant environmental aspects form the basis for the formulation of environmental goals.
Determine environmental aspects in conformity with the standard: A summary
The handling of environmental aspects is of great importance in environmental management according to ISO 14001. At this point, many decisions are made for an effective management system - and for the environment itself. Identifying significant environmental aspects with negative or positive effects on the environment is not like looking into a crystal ball.
Even though the standard does not specify a concrete method, process-oriented tools and procedures can be developed in a comparatively uncomplicated manner for determining environmental aspects. Examples include checklists for environmental aspects, how their environmental impacts can be identified, or evaluation matrices with corresponding evaluation criteria. Companies can therefore meet the requirements of ISO 14001 on environmental aspects in a systematic, structured and targeted way.
DQS: What we can do for you
The benefits of a management system in accordance with the environmental standard ISO 14001 unfold fully with auditing and certification. As an expert certification body accredited by the German DAkkS (Deutsche Akkreditierungsstelle GmbH), among others, we audit the effectiveness of your environmental management system as part of the classic certification process. It can also be part of an integrated management system.
We plan our audits individually and tailor them to the circumstances and goals of your company. With the DQS certificate, you receive internationally recognized proof that the strict environmental requirements of the standard have actually been met. Annual monitoring serves to ensure process stability and minimize risks. Recertification takes place every three years.
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Please note: Our articles are written exclusively by our standards experts for management systems and auditors of many years. If you have any questions for the author, please contact us. We look forward to talking with you.