Our website returns an awful lot of search results regarding environmental aspects and impacts, mainly dealing with what they are. While the idea of impacts is pretty intuitive, the idea of what is meant by aspects may not be. Considering that any Environmental Management System (EMS) – or really any good environmental program – needs to consider and reduce their environmental aspects and associated environmental impacts, it’s worthwhile to have a clear understanding of what this means.
The ISO 14001 EMS standard refers to an environmental aspect as “an element of an organization’s activities, products or services that can interact with the environment”, and further notes that a significant aspect is one that has or can have a significant environmental impact. The ISO 14001 EMS standard then refers to an environmental impact as “any change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partially resulting from an organization’s activities, products or services”.
So in order to understand how your operation, your products, your services interact with the environment – and in order to determine how you can change those interactions if that is your goal, you can see that it’s important to be able to determine what your aspects are, and what the resultant impacts are.
Pretty clear, but still a bit confusing! After all, why call it an “aspect”?
I like to make it simple. Aspects begin with the letter “A”. So do two other words which I think are a bit clearer to understand within this context – action and activity. When I work with companies on an Environmental Management System and we begin the process of diving into an evaluation of their aspects (to be followed by a determination of associated impacts), I ask them to focus on the actions or activities the company or plant does, as well as their products and services if applicable. And, all of their actions or activities! At first, most have a hard time enumerating these, and tend to focus on a handful of key steps in the manufacturing process. But with some creative thinking and prodding, it usually begins to flow. What are all the steps involved in doing what you do? Making your product? Operating your plant? Obtaining raw materials? Delivering your product? Obtaining and using energy? Disposing of wastes? How do you deliver your product? How do your employees get to work each day?
As you can see, the listing of environmental aspects (actions, activities) can pile up pretty quickly. Turns out there might be hundreds to thousands of more aspects involved with who you are and what you do. Usually, the problem turns into now how to list them, but how to rein the list in.
But are all of those environmental aspects truly significant in terms of environmental impact? Probably not. There are probably a lot of steps involved in your process that have minimal environmental impact, at most. When looking at a program to reduce your overall environmental impact, it probably makes sense to have a procedure to determine which are significant, and which aren't (we’ll cover this in another blog posting!).
And what are those impacts? In almost all cases, an environmental aspect can be identified as having many environmental impacts, both negative (such as water pollution, resource use, energy use, etc.) and also positive (use of recycled materials, use of alternative energy, etc.). Without a clear evaluation of the environmental impacts, you really can’t determine what aspects are significant.
An Environmental Management System must be built around a program to identify and reduce environmental aspects and impacts. Without knowing what these are, you’re stuck at the starting line.