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The Product Environmental Footprint: moving towards success or failure?

The Product/Organisation Environmental Footprint (PEF/OEF) project of the European Commission is a hot topic these days in the world of Life Cycle Assessment. Its development is a very dynamic process with an uncertain future. During the PEF/OEF mid-term conference, the participating stakeholders highlighted the opportunities to integrate the PEF into other frameworks and methods, thereby increasing the anticipation of the project. Additionally, the European Commission published the new package on circular economy, in which the PEF is mentioned as a possible method for consumer communication of product impacts. Keeping in mind so far only 1 out of 27 pilots stopped due to project management issues, we can at least assume that the project is embraced with enthusiasm. Ecomatters is involved in the PEF pilot project on decorative paints, testing and evaluating the methodology. We gladly share a brief overview of the developments of the PEF project with you.

PEF goals

Each of the 27 pilots are in different stages: some have finished their screening studies, some are developing the draft category rules and some started working on the supporting studies – such as the pilot on decorative paints. What they all have in common? They are developing the Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR) of the relevant product group. The PEFCR is a set of rules to be applied in a life cycle based study, thereby ensuring the use of the same assumptions, measurements and calculations among products of the same product group. This increases consistency and provides the basis for fair product comparison.

PEF: a work in progress

The methodology is currently being tested and evaluated throughout all the pilots and improvement opportunities are identified. Of course, the eagerness to deal with these issues – which is a challenge for science and is time consuming – depends on the feedback provided by all the pilots and the countries involved. Are we enthusiastic about PEF, or is it just another method failing to bring clarity in the world of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

Stakeholders in the Netherlands who are involved with PEF are also trying to formulate their answer to this question: different stakeholders are discussing the value of the PEF/OEF in a Dutch context. The first meeting was initiated by Ecomatters in collaboration with i.a. the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment and RIVM. This year, RIVM has organised a follow-up meeting to discuss and shape the Dutch vision on the PEF. In this meeting most of the participants indicated that they see a future for PEF, but that the method needs to be fine-tuned before it is ready to be used.

PEF: Possible next steps

If the feedback on the PEF project is overall negative, the method could end up as one of many methods failing to do its job and having wasted many stakeholders’ resources.

If the feedback on the PEF project is overall positive, the project can still go many directions. The European Commission would have to figure out how to use the PEFCRs. Various options are possible: oblige producers to calculate the PEF of their products, develop a recognisable scheme to evaluate the environmental performance of (consumer) products… And when we look far ahead in time: wouldn’t it be nice to create one method that can be used all over the world, instead of only Europe? But of course, it is a big challenge to make a method work in different environments, since the results need to be comparable, but also specific for each location.

Decorative paints pilot project

CEPE – the European Council of Paint, Printing Ink and Artist’s colours Industry, and the Leader of the Technical Secretariat of the pilot project for decorative paints – has commissioned the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) screening study on decorative paints to Ecomatters. This screening study was finalised in August 2015. It covers the most relevant types of paint and provides valuable insights on different levels.

1) Environmental drivers and hotspots

The most important drivers of impacts and hotspots were identified along the decorative paints value chain – paint frequency, coverage, paint formulation, and employee and business travel distance – and taken into account when developing the draft PEFCR.

2) Methodological challenges

Insights into the relatively new methodology were gained as well. The methodology is currently still in its infancy and based on some premature impact categories and characterisation factors. It is therefore not surprising that this provided some challenges for the pilot. However, these imperfections do not indicate that the methodology is not fit for use. They provide challenges to be tackled in the different pilots, which make the development process interesting and dynamic, constantly evaluating and improving the method.

If you want to know more about the PEF project or the pilot on decorative paints, register at the European Commission’s wiki space and download the full screening study report or the draft PEFCR.

Ecomatters’ perspective

We believe the PEF method is the future standard for environmental footprinting. The fact that the standardisation is driven by the European Commission and with many stakeholders involved and embracing it, indicates that this method cannot be ignored. The difficulties encountered during the screening studies enforce the need for a standardised method that is clear and easy to use. However, we think more discussions should be carried out to improve the different parts of the PEF method, to make sure it is fit for its goal. If everyone is willing to do their part, this will be an exciting, instructing and potentially very rewarding ride.


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