Assessing Environmental Aspects & Impacts

When I am delivering IEMA and NEBOSH courses this topic often causes difficulty to many. Environmental aspects and impacts assessment is a key part of many areas of environmental management such as the development of environmental management systems (EMS) to ISO 14001. In this post I plan to give a run through of how this is done with EMS developed to ISO 14001 very much in mind.

Background to Aspects and Impacts

Very generally environmental aspects and impacts are the way that your organisation effects the environment.

In ISO 14001 clause 6.1.2 there is a requirement for organisations to identify the

….. environmental aspects of its activities, products and services that it can control and those that it can influence, and their associated environmental impacts, considering a life cycle perspective.

Additionally ISO 14001 defines environmental aspects and impacts as:

Environmental aspects – element of an organisation’s activities products or services that interacts or can interact with the environment.

Environmental impact -any change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partially resulting from an organisation’s environmental aspects.

I never really liked the definition for an aspect it does not mean much to me and can be confusing. We therefore perhaps should look at an example, if you look below you will see a relatively simple example of  a series of aspects and impacts:

Activity AspectImpact
Operation of a diesel boiler

Emissions of carbon dioxide to airContribution to climate change
Spillage of diesel to surface water drainPollution of River Browney
Odour from diesel combustionNuisance to residents of nearby housing
Noise from diesel deliveriesNuisance to residents of nearby housing

An activity (such as operation of a boiler in the example above) will usually have numerous environmental aspects associated with it. Each environmental aspect may also have more than one environmental impact.

How to identify environmental aspects and impacts

There are numerous ways you can identify environmental aspects and impacts. A commonly used three step approach is to
  • Understand and select activities, products or services.
  • Identify the aspects and impacts of these.
  • Evaluate the significance of the impacts.
Whichever way you use you need to write this up in an environmental aspects and impacts procedure. Let’s look at each of  the three steps in more detail.

1. Understand and select activities, product and services.

When selecting an activity it should be just the right size – not to big so that it becomes complicated to understand and not too small that the process becomes time-consuming.

A commonly used approach to identify aspects and impacts it to use environmental process mapping. For a manufacturing organisation this could be all the stages from goods in to dispatch. But don’t forget ancillary activities – these are things that don’t follow the normal process flow such as the operation of a boiler, maintenance or office activities (unless you organisation is just an office).

Example of activities could be.

·Oil storage

·Paint spraying

·Manufacturing, or


2. Identifying environmental aspects and impacts

For the activities identified we need to determine the environmental aspects . For most organisations environmental aspects categories include:

  • emissions to air
  • releases to water
  • waste management
  • contamination of land
  • use of raw materials and natural resources
  • nuisance issue.

A good methodological way to work out what these are is to think about what comes in and what goes out for each activity. This input output approach can be seen in the diagram below:

When determining inputs and outputs consider that an environmental aspect can occur under any of the following conditions:

  • Normal – these are as a result of normal operations for example the emissions from the exhaust when driving a car.
  • Abnormal – these occur infrequently and are not part of day to day operations such as at start up and shut down or maintenance – for example filling a car with petrol.
  • Emergency – these occur as a result of an emergency such as fire, flood or spillage for example an accident when driving causing water pollution.

You should also be aware that aspects can occur in the past (such as land contamination), and future (e.g. planning a new facility) although most will be linked to present day activities.

The next phase is to understand what the environmental impacts are for each aspect. The environmental impact is the change (usually negative) that the aspect causes.

It is relatively straight forward to identify environmental impacts associated with output environmental aspects, but harder for input environmental aspects. For input environmental aspects we must understand where the input has come from and how it has been produced. for example

  • Diesel – the impacts surround the impacts of the manufacture and transportation of diesel before it comes to the site and simple terminology expressing this would be acceptable.

Don’t over complicate this phase as many do! Use simple terms and words. Another input example relevant to many sites is water use. You want to develop an understanding of how the water is cleaned up and distributed before it reaches the organisation, not the effluent it may go on to produce (this is an output aspect).

3. Evaluate significance

From undertaking the steps above you will tend to have a large number of environmental aspects and impacts it could be over a hundred depending on the size of your organisation.

Some of these will not be significant (this is the term used in 14001 but ‘important’ means pretty much the same!). Picking out the significant impacts is key as much of the rest of the system is based upon them (such as training, environmental objectives, operational controls etc).

Again there is no set way to do this, but we will look at a couple of common ways it could be done. Whichever way you choose it is suggested that you keep it simple. A complex system using lots of variables tends to come up with the same answers!

Simple Questions

This approach is recommended for most organisations. For each environmental aspect and impact you could ask the following questions:

  1. Does the environmental impact have the potential to cause serious damage to the environment?
  2. Does the environmental impact have any legislation associated with it which is being breached?
  3. Does the environmental impact cause concern to stakeholders (e.g. customers, suppliers and local community)?

If the answer to all of the above questions is no then the environmental impact is not significant. If the answer to any of these questions is yes then the impacts is significant.

Scoring systems

Another approach is to use a scoring system. In this example two factors are considered.

  • The frequency the aspects occurs
  • The consequences when it does occur

Figures are attached to these factors to reflect the scale of them. A similar approach is often used in general health and safety risk assessment.

Environmental aspects and impacts register

Whichever way you use to undertake environmental aspects and impacts evaluations a formal way of recording you decisions is needed. This will often be in the form of a register (or table) which identifies the environmental aspects, impacts and your decision on significance. An example using the simple question approach is provided below:

Office activitiesPaper useReduction in natural resources and impacts of generation and supply.NY
ConsumablesReduction in natural resources and impacts of generation and supply.NY
Redundant IT Equipment disposalImpacts of landfill ( leachate pollution, ground contamination and resource consumption etc.).NY
Used paper disposalImpacts of landfill ( leachate pollution, ground contamination and resource consumption etc.).NY
Used consumables disposalImpacts of landfill ( leachate pollution, ground contamination and resource consumption etc.).NY
Waste food packagingImpacts of landfill ( leachate pollution, ground contamination and resource consumption etc.).NY

This environmental aspects and impacts register should be reviewed on a regular scheduled basis with a commonly used frequency being every year. It also needs to be updated as soon as is possible when things change for example a new activity or service is undertaken by the organisation.

Good luck with assessing environmental aspects and impacts for ISO 14001. If you have any  queries please don’t hesitate to contact us.