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Contentious Ecolabel nearing completion

‘Contentious’ Ecolabel update nearing completion

A major change to the European Ecolabel will be finalised this year, according to Joint Research Council (JRC), the environmental group hired by the European Commission on Environment to deliver the update. A confirmed timetable is not yet available, and the specification still requires official sign off by the European Parliament. However, JRC has confirmed that the third draft, is the last and will closely reflect the final specification.

The voluntary European labelling scheme was extended to include lubricants in 2001 to encourage companies to develop products that are more environmentally friendly and is the official European Union mark for ‘greener’ products. The goal of Ecolabel 2018 is to further increase market share of environmentally acceptable lubricants (EAL).

While the specification is nearing implementation stage, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. Paula Vettel, technical director, Formulations and Regulatory, from Novvi, a joint venture created to develop, produce, market, and distribute high-performance base oils and lubricants from renewable sources, says the JRC’s first proposal was met with “significant opposition.”

The original proposal was debated by lubricant marketers, formulators, additive suppliers, JRC, and environmental authorities from EU countries at a “very vocal” meeting in Seville, Spain, in February 2017. Many parties feared widespread ramifications on EAL availability. As previously reported by F+L Magazine, Bernard C. Roell, Jr., then vice president of Research and Development at RSC Bio Solutions, claimed the changes could eliminate “50% of products currently approved under Ecolabel” during a presentation at F+L Week 2017 in Singapore. Some estimate this figure could be even higher.

Increasing renewability content and percent requirements around biodegradability, the barring of hazard statements from all components, traceability of all vegetable oils used in Ecolabel fluids, particularly palm oil, plus the possible inclusion of a new test requirement for two-stroke engine oil, were all key features of the Ecolabel first draft proposal.

The JRC endured a “full day assault on everything they had proposed,” says Vettel, but to their credit, they listened and have made some compromises, she says. The second and third Ad-Hoc Working Group drafts received a noticeably less frosty reception. Speaking at the STLE Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, Minn., U.S.A., in May, Vettel outlined many of the changes and challenges in the final iteration of the Ecolabel proposal, released in January 2018.

Paula Vettel
Paula Vettel

A key distinction is the overhaul of the scope. Instead of five categories, the products are grouped by their environmental profile. Three categories of lubricants include Total Loss Lubricants (TLL), Partial Loss Lubricants (PLL), and Accidental Loss lubricants (ALL). TLL lubricants include chainsaw oils, wire rope lubricants, concrete release agents, open gear oils, stern tube oils, total loss lubricating greases. PLL comprises two-stroke oils, temporary protection against corrosion, and partial loss lubricating greases. While ALL focuses on hydraulic systems, metalworking fluids, closed gear oils and accidental loss lubricating greases.

The Ecolabel draft contains eight criteria. In round one, a highly contentious issue was the declaration that all components must not have hazard statements. The current version has made some concessions to this criterion, says Vettel. Hazardous substances categories are based on Blue Angel restrictions but have been loosened to allow certain levels of lubricant additives. H statements indicating severe damage or harm must have less than 0.010 % weight by weight per substance in the formulation. In cases of aspiration or allergic reaction, or where very toxic to aquatic life, the allowance is 0.5x the classification limit, which varies by statement. For less severe toxicity, you are permitted up to the classification limit. Vettel affirms that this is “not as bad as it sounds,” although she says they are still assessing what the limits mean for each individual additive.

Aquatic toxicity tolerates two different approaches; assessment on the basis of the finished lubricant, running acute or chronic toxicity, or by analysing the main components — though Vettel concedes this approach is a little more complicated because the limits vary depending on the TLL, PLL or ALL category. Acute aquatic toxicity test methods are: OECD 201 Algae, OECD 202 Daphnia, OECD 203 Fish, and chronic aquatic toxicity test methods are: OECD 211 Daphnia, OECD 215 Fish.

Biodegradability had many stakeholders extremely hot under the collar in Seville. Vettel says this draft is “not all that much different than it was before,” with the same type of restrictions as in earlier versions, though they are now broken down into the new categories. Despite stern opposition, the 10-day window, specifically excluded from Ecolabel 2011, still remains. This means once you reach 10% biodegradability you have 10 days to go all the way to 60%. “This sort of profile makes sense for low viscosity esters and vegetable oils, but doesn’t make sense for any other base oils,” claims Vettel. However, if the main component is unknown, variable, complex, biological (UVCB), the 10-day window does not apply. Most base oils fit this description, confirms the Novvi representative, thus the number of main components impacted may be limited.

A notable change in the criteria to establish bioaccumulation has also been tabled. Previously, an octanol/water partition coefficient or Log Kow of <3 or >7 was considered satisfactory. The JRC encountered resistance to a “severe” upper limit of >10 proposed in the second draft. A compromise position of >8 has been reached.

Establishing limits for renewable content has been problematic. The revision of January 2017 proposed renewable content of >60%. The subsequent iteration offered a complicated scheme. Now, the requirement for a minimum renewable content has been scrapped altogether, although renewable ingredients used in the formulation “may be preferentially certified according to third-party sustainability schemes and information on the origin shall be provided.” To address a lack of clarity around the use of the term “bio”, the Ecolabel proposal calls for a minimum bio-based carbon content of 25% in the final product, in accordance with CEN/TR 16227:2011.

EcolabelWhen establishing “minimal technical performance,” legislators have gone back to lubricant categories, due to an absence of one technology that fits everybody. Rather than “fit for purpose,” the addition of “demonstrated preferentially by at least one relevant OEM approval” introduces more specific requirements and is used in several subgroups. Vettel suggests it will be up to competent authorities in individual countries to determine what evidence they require.

Ecolabel directives around packaging are less controversial. Recycled content for lubricants sold in plastic packaging must include a minimum 25% post-consumer recycled plastic, and the design requires a dispenser closure system for private end consumers to minimise spillage. The language on the label in the second draft was “poorly written,” thus the final draft looks to improve specific consumer information regarding use and disposal — including the statements “avoid any spillage to the environment” and “product residue and package/container shall be disposed of in dedicated collection points.” Samples are required for verification. Guidelines also provide for an optional label with text detailing “verified performance,” “% of certified renewable ingredients,” and “reduced harm for water and soil during use due to limited amount of hazardous substances.”

During her presentation, Vettel also provided a brief update on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Vessel General Permit (VGP). The VGP is required to be reviewed every five years, with the previous iteration released in 2013. Jack Faulk, team leader, Water Permits Division at the U.S. EPA, has confirmed the update will be completed by the end of the year, and expects minimal changes. The revision will clarify the definition of ultimate versus readily biodegradable and may make some exemption for the 10-day rule. Further, Vettel advises, a new guide for industrial marine lubricants is currently under development in ASTM D02 – F25, which will establish more specifically the technical requirements for these fluids.