The art of interaction

13th February 2012


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  • EMS



In the latest in his series of articles examining the IEMA Associate certificate syllabus, Paul Reeve goes back to basics on how to identify environmental aspects and impacts

The terms “environmental aspect” and “environmental impact” are fundamentally important to environment management. Understanding aspects and impacts allows organisations to identify and manage the most environmentally significant parts of their activities. This understanding is essential for the effective operation of a certified environment management system (EMS), notably ISO 14001.

Aspects are those parts of an organisation’s activities, products or services that interact with the environment, while impacts are changes to the environment that result from these interactions.

Identifying aspects

A very helpful, and logical, approach to determining environmental aspects is to identify the various “inputs” and “outputs” of key activities, products and services. Considering the aspects associated with products and services is a requirement of 14001, with users of the standard compelled to establish, implement and maintain procedures that:

  • identify the environmental aspects of its activities, products and services within the scope of the EMS that it can control and those that it can influence, taking into account planned/new developments, or new/modified activities, products and services; and
  • determine the aspects that have (or can have) significant environmental impacts.

All activities have inputs, such as the use (including reuse) of materials, water, energy and land. They also have outputs, such as products, by-products, waste materials, emissions or energy, including pollution. The interactions of various inputs and outputs with the environment are environmental aspects.

Direct environmental aspects arise from an organisation’s own activities, such as manufacturing or other on-site processes. The organisation usually has direct control over these aspects. Direct aspects are usually identified through a systematic examination of site-based activities and processes. This process is generally referred to as an environmental review.

Indirect aspects arise from the activities of others with which the organisation interacts – usually its supply chain. Indirect aspects are subject to varying influence from the organisation in question, but they can be highly significant. They are aspects over which the organisation should have a degree of influence, such as through raw material specifications, energy sourcing or supplier selection. Their identification requires a broader organisational view of activities, products and services beyond site-based activities.

Planned and unplanned aspects

Annex A to 14001 states that organisations should consider “normal operating conditions, shutdown and start-up conditions, as well as the realistic potential significant impacts associated with reasonably foreseeable or emergency situations”. Organisations should thus consider both planned and unplanned (potential) environmental aspects.

Planned aspects are part of normal operations. For example, they can arise from inputs or outputs (production wastes, combustion emissions, use of energy, use of water and minerals); releases below the regulatory limit or internally set target; or planned clearance of land. By contrast, unplanned aspects are associated with incidents, near misses or unintended operating practice. Examples include: leaks or spills, fires or explosions; situations where regulatory standards are not met or emission or discharge limits are exceeded (equipment malfunction, operator error); or accidental ecological damage during construction.

The need to consider unplanned aspects requires an organisation to think about the potential for something that could cause a significant environmental event. The management of planned and unplanned environmental aspects supports risk control, continual improvement, pollution control and legal compliance, which are all essential requirements of an effective EMS.

A simple example is waste oil, which should be contained until it is reprocessed, recovered or responsibly disposed of. However, loss of containment through tank corrosion or vandalism, for example, could lead to an unplanned oil spill reaching drains or a watercourse, or seeping into the ground. The potential for spills is a prospective environmental aspect, for which planning and suitable precautionary measures are required.

However, the risk of unplanned environmental impacts can be much more serious than this. Major disasters such as the accidents at Flixborough, Seveso, Chernobyl and the Gulf of Mexico have had such a human or environmental impact that they have shaped stakeholder opinion and subsequent regulatory control.

Processes that have a particularly high risk of causing a major impact usually require an assessment of the frequency of unplanned aspects, and the severity of the resulting impacts. Identified risks should then be reduced to tolerable levels with planning, control measures and, if an impact occurs, emergency procedures.

Cause and effect

It is worth pointing out that activities (inputs and outputs) cause aspects, and aspects cause impacts. It is helpful to regard aspects as “causes” and impacts as “effects”. An organisation’s environmental aspects and impacts depend on:

  • its activity, product and service profile;
  • where the activity takes place – proximity to sensitive environments (receptors), transport requirements; and
  • the key suppliers – location, distance, type of materials/energy supplied, and the significant environmental impacts of the supplier.

Once there is an understanding of an organisation’s environmental aspects, the resulting environmental impacts can be considered. Except for high-hazard processes, the identification of impacts does not normally require detailed scientific evaluation. In most situations it is enough to understand the overall issues and concerns associated with the impacts, and to be able to communicate them effectively.

Identifying and managing significant environmental aspects is the priority for environment management, whether or not certification to 14001 is the goal. Environment management should focus on those activities that are the root cause of significant environmental aspects, because, while the bulk of impacts cannot be effectively managed, the aspects that lead to them can.

Often a given aspect can be linked to a particular environmental impact, but some aspects can have more than one impact. For example, emissions of nitrogen oxides can contribute to both tropospheric ozone creation and acid deposition. Conversely, different aspects can contribute to the same overall environmental impact – carbon dioxide and methane are both greenhouse gases implicated in global climate change.

Information on aspects and impacts can be organised into environmental aspect (energy use, water use, different waste streams or types of emission) or impact (climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, water pollution, resource use and nuisance) categories.

Whatever the method by which this information is compiled, the environmental aspects and the associated activities should be clearly identifiable, as should aspect/impact relationships.

A future article will examine environmental reviews.

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