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ISO 14001 Blog

Mark Hammar

What makes an environmental aspect significant in ISO 14001?

Part of ISO 14001 implementation is evaluating which of your environmental aspects are significant. These environmental aspects are the ways in which your company processes interact with the environment, but what does it mean to classify one of these interactions as significant? With no criteria listed in the ISO 14001 standard on what is significant, how do you decide what the definition should be? Here are a few things to consider when you come up with your definitions of which environmental aspects are significant and which are not.

The purpose of determining significant aspects

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You can’t manage everything; nor do you need to. In a system where everything is critical and everything is a priority, nothing takes precedence. This is why you need to decide which environmental aspects are significant, to highlight which are important and need to be managed. By identifying which of your environmental interactions are the most important, and therefore worthy of further scrutiny and monitoring, you are able to prioritize what needs to have attention and what does not.

In this way you can assign the right resources to the right problems to get the best return on your environmental investment. When only two aspects really matter, does it make sense to invest in managing all 100 environmental interactions in a company? There are many ways to keep track of the aspects you have and which ones are significant, from a simple spreadsheet to a computer database, so this does not need to be complicated.

What are some criteria you should consider?

In the blog about 4 steps in identification and evaluation of environmental aspects, step 3 talks about evaluating which environmental aspects are significant. That article highlights some broad criteria to consider when determining the significance of your environmental aspects, and here are some examples that might help to make this clear:

  • Required by legislation: This criteria should go without saying. If you have a legal requirement to monitor, control, and manage an environmental aspect, then this aspect is significant. If you have a waste water treatment facility that must meet a certain chemical composition before discharging to the sewage system in your community, then the measurements and management of this discharge will be required by law in many countries; as such, this should be listed as a significant environmental aspect. If the management fails, or the measurement is not done correctly, you could discharge untreated water and be legally non-compliant.
  • Potential for environmental harm: If you have a chemical process that uses cyanide, it has a greater chance of causing environmental harm due to a spill than does a chemical process that uses alcohol. This is due to the nature of the chemicals involved and the effect that a spill could have on the environment around your facility. Similarly, for an office environment, the reduction of wasted printing to decrease the use of paper, printing chemicals, and electricity might be of greater concern than other environmental aspects if this practice is widespread and many materials are wasted.
  • Frequency of the activity: You may use some fairly harmful chemicals in your cleaning and maintenance process for your machine. But, if this only occurs once a year, then this might not be one of your most significant potential impacts on the environment if a spill would be small and relatively contained. Other operations that occur daily could cause an overall greater potential environmental impact, and therefore be more worthy of your monitoring and management.
  • Importance to company stakeholders: Company stakeholders are not just your employees, investors, and customers. These stakeholders can include those living in the community around your facilities, so you need to consider what is important to them. You may have a process that creates a foul smell that may not be of particular concern to the plants and animals around you, but if this odor causes concerns for parents who have their children in the park near your building, you may need to take steps to manage that environmental aspect.

Prioritize your aspects to pinpoint your areas of concern

By determining what a significant environmental aspect is, you are setting the priorities for your employees on what is most important for your company to ensure the betterment of the planet. Focus on the most important, and you can control or potentially eliminate (by changing your process) that aspect from your company, which is beneficial for you and the environment. Isn’t this is the reason that an environmental management system is in place to start with?

Click here to download a free white paper  Checklist of ISO 14001 Mandatory Documentation that will show you the required documents for performing the evaluation of environmental aspects.

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