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C 95/24 EN Official Journal of the European Union 23.4.


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Proposal for a Regulation of
the European Parliament and of the Council on Detergents’

(COM(2002) 485 final — 2002/0216 (COD))

(2003/C 95/07)

On 8 October 2002, the Council decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee,
under Article 95 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the above-mentioned proposal.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for
preparing the Committee’s work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 4 February 2003 (Rapporteur:
Mr Adams).

At its 397th plenary session on 26 and 27 February 2003 (meeting of 26 February), the European
Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 106 votes for, one against and three

1. Introduction tives on the issue of detergents dating back to 1973 ( 1) and

incorporating in the proposed new Regulation a Recommen-
dation on voluntary labelling dating from 1989 ( 2).

1.3. The Commission proposal has been in preparation for

1.1. Detergents can be rightly considered an essential several years with the draft proposal being available from
product but because they contain an impressive array of August 2001. An extensive consultation process has already
chemical substances they have been a focus of regulation for taken place with industry, Member States, consumer and
many years. Chemical compounds contained in detergents environmental groups and is, to some degree, reflected in the
include various types of complex surfactants (basically sub- Commission’s final document (3).
stances which remove dirt, stain, and soil from surfaces or
textiles), complexing agents to soften water (often phosphates),
preservatives to prevent the growth of micro-organisms in the
product, bleaching agents, acids, solvents and fragrances. Over
2. Summary of the Commission proposal
7 million tonnes of household laundry and cleaning products
were purchased, applied and disposed of in Europe in 1998,
the great majority of surfactants being petroleum based.
2.1. The Commission proposal is for a Regulation con-
cerned with modernising existing detergent directives to
further protect the environment, particularly regarding the
biodegradability of surfactants – the key surface-active ingredi-
ents in cleaning, rinsing or softening preparations. New tests
1.2. The European detergents market is considered to are proposed which are generally applicable and ensure a
be ‘mature’. Recent developments have focussed on low higher level of protection. In addition:
temperature washing, condensed or concentrated powder or
liquids as well as specifically labelled eco-products. Higher
standards of environmental sustainability are being promoted
through the EU’s own Eco-label and several similar national (1 ) Council Directive 73/404/EEC of 22 November 1973 on the
approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to
initiatives. Plant-based surfactants now exist as possible detergents (OJ L 347, 17.12.1973, p. 51) as last amended by
replacements for those that are petroleum-based, though they Council Directive 86/94/EEC (OJ L 80, 25.3.1986, p. 51),
are more expensive, and alternatives to phosphates are also in Council Directive 73/405/EEC of 22 November 1973 on the
use. Many Member States have, in the past, experienced the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to
potential of detergents to have an environmentally damaging methods of testing the biodegradability of anionic surfactants (OJ
effect. The general thrust of regulation has been to ensure non- L 347, 17.12.1973, p. 53) as last amended by Council Directive
toxicity and rapid breakdown (bio-degradability) of chemical 82/243/EEC (OJ L 109, 22.4.1982, p. 18), and Council Directive
substances in detergents. The regulation and testing regimes 82/242/EEC of 31 March 1982 on the approximation of the
established over the last twenty years are widely accepted by laws of the Member States relating to methods of testing the
industry, consumer organisations and environmental groups biodegradability of non-ionic surfactants and amending Council
Directive 73/404/EEC (OJ L 109, 22.4.1982, p. 1).
as having been largely successful in significantly reducing the (2 ) Commission Recommendation 89/542/EEC of 13 September
known negative environmental impacts of detergents though 1989 for the labelling of detergents and cleaning products
concerns still exist about major inland bodies of water (OJ L 291, 10.10.1989, p. 55).
and also the northern Mediterranean coastline. This present (3 ) Results of the public consultation:
proposal from the Commission advances that process by enterprise/chemicals/detergents/publicconsult/contrib/
consolidating, improving and extending a series of five direc- contrib.htm
23.4.2003 EN Official Journal of the European Union C 95/25

— previous recommendations on labelling, which are about greater flexibility in testing, derogations and labelling
already widely observed in most Member States, are made have not been accepted. These areas are explored below and
binding; where it seems appropriate a specific recommendation has
been made.
— a new category of consumer information on the presence
of fragrance substances is introduced;

4. Specific comments
— a provision is added obliging manufacturers to make
available to health care professionals a full listing of
4.1. Much of the detail of the proposal is concerned
with the biodegradability of surfactants in aerobic conditions
(presence of oxygen) and the testing procedures which can
2.2. The proposal requires Member States to establish establish primary and ultimate biodegradation. Primary biode-
sanctions for non-compliance and in an extensive series of gradation involves the loss of the surfactants original properties
Annexes, which form the majority of the proposal, provides (i.e. the capacity to clean); ultimate biodegradation is the final
for detailed test and analytical methods and defines procedures level achieved when the surfactant is as fully broken down by
and lists for derogations and banned or restricted surfactants. micro-organisms as possible. The EESC applauds the intention
to distinguish between primary and ultimate biodegradation
as it is the latter which now poses the main threat to
the aquatic and coastal environment through accumulation.
3. General comments However, the proposal recognises that issues relating to
anaerobic biodegradation (without the presence of oxygen, e.g.
in sludge or all but the top layer of sea-bed) remain unresolved.
Although the proposal recommends this issue is kept under
3.1. The EESC welcomes the Commission’s initiative in review and, if justified, a further proposal developed, the EESC
drawing up this proposal the intention of which is to believes this view to be disingenuous. Robust tests and ranking
modernise existing directives and introduce new biodegrad- tables for the anaerobic digestion of surfactants in clothes
ability tests. It also welcomes the initiative on consumer detergents do exist ( 2) and the Committee recommends that:
labelling, particularly on the presence of fragrances, which
remain a cause for concern among some consumer and
— the proposed regulation considers the inclusion of tests
environmental organisations on health grounds. The EESC, in
several of its recent opinions (1), has expressed the view that on anaerobic biodegradation and sets appropriate stan-
environmental impact of chemicals and other substances is dards and levels.
best dealt with at source though an approach involving
elimination or minimisation, coupled with strict testing,
regulation, labelling and monitoring of permitted substances. 4.2. All stakeholders involved in this issue, including the
Commission, acknowledge that laboratory testing procedures
are not necessarily reliable in covering all the various con-
ditions that might apply to biodegradation processes in real
3.2. The proposal concentrates on providing a standard of life. It is also the case that this is a continually developing
regulation and testing applicable to all Member States which field of interest and concern worldwide. Sometimes the
will ensure the functioning of the internal market. The methodological approach underlying the proposal does not
proposal states that it does this whilst ‘ensuring a high degree always incorporate contemporary approaches and studies
of protection of the environment’. However, it should be noted undertaken by various government or independent agencies,
that the Commission promotes, through its detergents’ criteria e.g. the Danish Environmental Protection Agency ( 3). The
for the EU Eco-label, an approach which sets more demanding Commission has also acknowledged in discussions that new
standards to ensure environmental sustainability. In the view evaluations of the environmental risks posed by phosphates
of the EESC the Commission aims to meet ‘middle ground’ are pending. In this context a more active application of the
concerns about environmental impact and is thus regarded as precautionary principle is appropriate. The EESC therefore
inadequate in certain respects by some environmental groups. recommends that:
Conversely, certain views from the cleaning products industry
— the proposed regulation should specifically state that its
joint objective is to encourage the use of surfactants
which rapidly biodegrade in a way which does not raise
( 1) Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the White any problem of environmental toxicity;
Paper — Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy (COM(2001) 88
final) — OJ C 36, 8.2.2002, p. 80-85; Opinion of the Economic
and Social Committee on the Proposal for a Decision of the
European Parliament and of the Council laying down the Com-
munity Environment Action Programme 2001-2010 (2 ) The Nordic Swan, the official environmental label of the Nordic
(COM(2001) 31 final — 2001/0029 (COD) — OJ C 221, countries introduced in 1989 by the Nordic Council of Ministers.
7.8.2001, p. 80-85; Opinion of the Economic and Social Com- (3 ) ‘Environmental and health assessment of substances in household
mittee on the Proposal for a Council Regulation concerning the detergents and cosmetic detergent products’, Environmental Pro-
export and import of dangerous chemicals (COM(2001) 803 final ject No 615, Danish EPA 2001:
— 2001/0026 (ACC) — OJ C 241, 7.10.2002, p. 50-56. Publications/2001/87-7944-596-9/html/default–eng.htm
C 95/26 EN Official Journal of the European Union 23.4.2003

— more precise test methods are sought making it possible not require this information and the EESC suggest its inclusion
to more accurately monitor biodegradation over time; in future revisions.

— a clear statement should be made that substances in

cleaning products causing excessive harm to the environ- 5. Conclusions
ment will be banned. This to be based on evidence
published to date and maintained as a rolling review to 5.1. The proposal introduces little that is new but is
incorporate the findings of new research studies as they rather a consolidation of existing directives and voluntary
are published. agreements. The EESC notes the Commission’s stated commit-
ment to minimise the environmental impact of this category
of high volume consumer products and the inclusion of the
4.3. The EESC welcomes the proposed requirement that Committee’s recommendations set out in this opinion will give
detergent product labels state the presence of fragrances which additional weight to this intention. The EESC recognises that
are on the list of allergenic perfume ingredients. As a further the detergent manufacturing industry has itself contributed
aid to providing consumer information of use in enabling a substantially to reducing the environmental impact of their
purchaser to opt for a more environmentally friendly product products.
the Committee recommends that:
5.2. Significant advances have been made in the commercial
— the Commission proposes ways and means to communi-
development of substitutes to replace detergent ingredients
cate the general environmental impact characteristics of
with known damaging effects or broader, second order
the product (not just the surfactant), e.g. by requiring
environmental impact implications. The EESC notes and
the level of primary and ultimate biodegradability as
sympathises with the very real concern and dissatisfaction of
determined by an improved testing process be expressed
numerous European environmental scientists with the current
as a percentage on the product label;
proposal and therefore urges the Commission and the deter-
gents industry to promote the adoption of completely bio-
— the Commission emphasises through consumer edu-
degradable and non-toxic products in conjunction with a
cation that correct use of detergents can eliminate
programme of positive consumer education.
unnecessarily high dosage and that further research and
information (via labelling and advertising) on controlled
dosage will assist consumers to reduce the amount of 5.3. In particular the development of eco-labelling has led
detergent used at source. to the presentation of technical information and the appli-
cation of testing procedures on detergents already being
accepted as appropriate for higher environmental standards by
4.4. The current proposal requires the number of standard the Commission. The EESC recommends that in future work
washes obtainable to be stated on the packaging, which the on the development of further directives or regulations the
EESC endorses, but notes that current EU Eco-label criteria do Commission could take more account of these initiatives.

Brussels, 26 February 2003.

The President
of the European Economic and Social Committee