Environmental Management Systems should be strengthened in plantations

27 March 2014 05:48 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


An Environmental Management System (EMS) is a set of processes and practices that enables an organisation to reduce its environmental impacts and increase its operating efficiency.

What is EMS?
It is a framework that helps a company achieve its environmental goals through consistent control of its operations. The assumption is that this increased control will improve the environmental performance of the company. The EMS itself does not dictate a level of environmental performance that must be achieved; each company’s EMS is tailored to the company’s business and goals.

An EMS helps a company address its regulatory demands in a systematic and cost-effective manner. This proactive approach can help reduce the risk of non-compliance and improve health and safety practices for employees and the public.

An EMS can also help address non-regulated issues, such as energy conservation and can promote stronger operational control and employee stewardship.

Basic elements of EMS
  • Reviewing progress of the EMS and making improvements
  • Monitoring and measuring progress in achieving the objectives
  • Setting environmental objectives and targets to reduce environmental impacts and comply with legal requirements
  • Reviewing the company’s environmental goals
  • Analysing its environmental impacts and legal requirements
  • Establishing programmes to meet these objectives and targets
  • Ensuring employees’ environmental awareness and competence
  • ISO 14000 - Environmental management
The ISO 14000 family addresses various aspects of environmental management. It provides practical tools for companies and organisations looking to identify and control their environmental impact and constantly improve their environmental performance. ISO 14001:2004 and ISO 14004:2004 focus on environmental management systems. The other standards in the family focus on specific environmental aspects such as lifecycle analysis, communication and auditing.

EMS under ISO 14001
An EMS encourages a company to continuously improve its environmental performance. The system follows a repeating cycle. The company first commits to an environmental policy, then uses its policy as a basis for establishing a plan, which sets objectives and targets for improving environmental performance. The next step is implementation. After that, the company evaluates its environmental performance to see whether the objectives and targets are being met. If targets are not being met, corrective action is taken. The results of this evaluation are then reviewed by the top management to see if the EMS is working. The management revisits the environmental policy and sets new targets in a revised plan. The company then implements the revised plan. The cycle repeats and continuous improvement occurs.
The most commonly used framework for an EMS is the one developed by the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) for the ISO 14001 standard. Established in 1996, this framework is the official international standard for an EMS.

The five main stages of an EMS, as defined by the ISO 14001 standard, are described below:

1. Commitment and policy
The top management commits to environmental improvement and establishes a company environmental policy. The policy is the foundation of the EMS.

2. Planning
A company first identifies environmental aspects of its operations. Environmental aspects are those items, such as air pollutants or hazardous waste that can have negative impacts on people and/or the environment.

A company then determines which aspects are significant by choosing criteria considered most important by the company. For example, a company may choose worker health and safety, environmental compliance and cost as its criteria. Once significant environmental aspects are determined, a company sets objectives and targets. An objective is an overall environmental goal (e.g., minimize use of chemical X). A target is a detailed, quantified requirement that arises from the objectives

(e.g., reduce use of chemical X by 25 percent by December, 2015). The final part of the planning stage is devising an action plan for meeting the targets. This includes designating responsibilities, establishing a schedule and outlining clearly defined steps to meet the targets.

3. Implementation
A company follows through with the action plan using the necessary resources (human, financial, etc.). An important component is employee training and awareness for all employees. Other steps in the implementation stage include documentation, following operating procedures and setting up internal and external communication lines.

4. Evaluation
A company monitors its operations to evaluate whether targets are being met. If not, the company takes corrective action.

5. Review
The top management reviews the results of the evaluation to see if the EMS is working. The management determines whether the original environmental policy is consistent with company values. The plan is then revised to optimize the effectiveness of the EMS. The review stage creates a loop of continuous improvement for a company.

One of the problems related to the low land productivity rate in the plantation sector of Sri Lanka is the loss of fertile top soil through erosion and associated land degradation. Soil erosion has also caused major off-site environmental problems related to silting of reservoirs, with adverse effects on hydropower generation capacity and irrigation of agricultural land in the dry zone.

Another environmentally-related problem is the leeching away of fertilizer (nitrates) from steeply sloping land into downstream water bodies.
Environmental issues related to processing activities in the plantation sector also pose significant problems, except in the tea sector. In fact, tea related activities have been categorized as ‘low polluting’ by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA).

Nevertheless, all processing activities are monitored through the issuance of environment protection licences (EPLs) under which the national standards such as BOD, COD for effluent disposal, a major problem in the rubber, coconut and oil palm sectors, have been laid down by CEA .

With regard to international environmentally-related Conventions and other agreements affecting the tea sector, and to which Sri Lanka is a party, another issue that is being looked into is the use of methyl bromide as a soil fumigant. Its use in Sri Lanka is regulated and controlled under the Control of Pesticides Act.

Limitations and challenges
 These issues may need to be addressed more through normal laws and regulations, while at the same time taking into account developmental needs. In that context, balancing enforcement measures with awareness and training through assistance programs appears to be a big challenge for the authorities.

Between sectors
There are marked differences between the adverse environmental impacts of the three crops, tea rubber and coconut, when it comes to soil erosion, land degradation and loss of productivity.

The most marked adverse impact appears to occur in the case of replanting high-grown tea on steep slopes.

However, in the case of rubber, although grown on sloping land with fairly high gradients, the problem is not perceived to be so pronounced as rubber trees bind the soil better.  Furthermore, rubber tree replanting is carried out at longer intervals of time.

In order to minimize the effects of soil erosion, a deliberate choice of a crop can be made for providing vegetation that has rapid growth characteristics, thereby providing constant ground cover. On rubber plantations, creeping legumes serve that purpose effectively. In the case of tea, a well-managed vegetatively propagated tea also provides an excellent cover crop.

However, difficulties arise during the early period of establishing such ground-cover crops. Furthermore, since the chosen cover crop should also yield an economic return, rubber offers an economic advantage over tea.

Coconuts lie at the other end of the scale. With coconut plantations, adverse environmental impacts resulting from soil erosion and land degradation hardly ever arise because the palms are generally grown on flat terrain in the low country.

When it comes to adverse impacts related to excessive use of agrochemicals (herbicides, pesticides and fungicides), tea has a distinct disadvantage over the other two crops, as it is a directly consumable product.

Hence, more stringent control measures are required to prevent agrochemical residues above the permitted limits being deposited on tea.

However, this question does not arise in the case of rubber, because the end products are for industrial use. As far as hazards related to processed products are concerned, coconuts fall within an entirely different dimension. Very strict control must be maintained over coconut processing operations to prevent the contamination of desiccated coconut with Salmonella.

Management practices
In any event, during cultivation of plantation crops, it is possible to employ a range of environmentally friendly management practices which mitigate the adverse impacts on the environment which result from soil erosion and land degradation; Forests and green areas constitute two important sinks for ‘greenhouse’ gases (GHG).

In that context, tea, rubber, oil palm plantations play a significant role in the mitigation of GHG emissions.

In addition, the forestry component is an integral part of plantation cropping in Sri Lanka, as it aids in the mitigation process and contributes to biodiversity.
The forestry component of Sri Lanka, especially the tea sector, mainly comprises fuelwood which is used in the industry itself.

As an environmentally friendly renewable resource, forests therefore contribute to the sustainable development of the plantation sector; The use by the plantation sector of chemicals which cause adverse impacts on the environment is very limited. For example, the quantity of methyl bromide (which is an ozone depleting substance) used as a fumigant by the tea sector is very limited.

In any event, less harmful substitutes are generally available for use with tea.

Another noteworthy feature of plantation crops is that those can be cultivated under organic conditions, particularly with the aid of bio-fertilizers and other environmentally friendly organic practices. However, crop productivity under organic conditions is lower.

Nevertheless, organic produce fetches premium prices in world markets because the demand for such ‘green’ products among health conscious consumers is increasing on international markets.

Sri Lanka has already begun to respond to the demand for organic or bio-teas, albeit in limited quantities at present; In tea manufacturing, the sector primarily employs maceration and drying processes for green tea leaves which are, by and large, environmentally friendly as they produce very little toxic effluent that impacts adversely on natural resources.

The only exceptions are secondary processed products, such as ‘instant tea’ products which may produce a certain amount of effluent.

Even in such instances, mitigatory measures can be easily introduced. In the case of atmospheric emissions, there is hardly any contribution to the environmental hazard of acid rain as the tea processing industry in Sri Lanka uses either fuel wood or fuel with a low sulphur content.

(The writer can be contacted at treecrops@gmail.com)
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