When do standards apply?

Standards are important in our day to day life. As you put on your helmet to ride to work or school, you can be comforted knowing the protective helmet standards must apply. When you switch on your lights in your new office block, you know the wiring is safe because of the standards for electrical installations. And when you head home in your car or public transport, a number of transport standards from signals to power and train operation specifications may apply. In all parts of our life, standards provide safety and reliability.

In Australia, a range of organisations develop standards. This includes Standards Australia, transport authorities, and other government departments. Standards Australia define standards as:

Voluntary documents that set out specifications, procedures and guidelines that aim to ensure products, services, and systems are safe, consistent, and reliable.”

As an example, standards that I have commonly worked with include Australian Standard (AS) 4454–2012 (AS4454) for composts, soil conditioners and mulches, and AS4419:2018 for soils in landscaping and garden use.

I recently wrote briefly about how standards fit into a regulatory hierarchy. A reader on LinkedIn sent me this query:

Thanks so much for this gem, Jess. Glad you also mentioned Standards and how they fit in the hierarchy. I am curious to learn how they fit in the hierarchy when it is claimed that a product meets the Standard (e.g Compost) and is marketed with this claim, yet clearly is sub-standard and doesn't go close to making the grade. Is there now a legal recourse or some other policing mechanism that can be applied?”

This is a very interesting question! I cannot present an opinion on the law and legal recourse, as I am not a lawyer. However, I can discuss how the science of compost production and products can comply with regulations using the legislative hierarchy outlined in my previous blog post through my role as a regulatory scientist.

Compost at a farm in south-west Victoria (Photo: Jess Drake)

Australian Standard 4454 encompasses composts, and is a voluntary standard. That means that compost makers can use the standard, if they choose, to make a product that meets that standard. As stated on the Standards Australia website:

“On their own, standards are voluntary. There is no requirement for the public to comply with standards. However, State and Commonwealth governments often refer to Australian Standards® (AS) or joint Australian/New Zealand Standards (AS/NZS) in their legislation. When this happens, these standards can become mandatory.”

Standards can be adopted by legislation meaning they may help set out specific legal obligations that needs to be achieved. Again, as I am not a lawyer, I won't go into legality of standards within different parts of the legislative hierarchy.

In Victoria, AS4454 for composts is only referred to in guidelines for composting facilities (EPA Victoria Guideline 1588.1). It has not been adopted by legislation. Using the legislative hierarchy, this means that aspects of the AS4454 standard have been used as an example of how a composting facility can technically meet its legislative obligations to prevent or minimise risk of harm to human health and environment. This includes processing, pasteurisation, maturation, product testing and product requirements for composts. Composting facilities can also use their own risk and evidence-based approach to meet legislative requirements. You can check to see if the compost you bought has adopted the voluntary code by looking at the product bag or asking to see testing and product specifications.

How standards are used may be very different for other states. In NSW, the Biosecurity Order (Permitted Activities) 2019 Regulations directly refer to AS4454 for the treatment of grape marc and for the movement of mulch or soil improving materials associated with grapevine or NSW phylloxera biosecurity/infestation zones. In this case, the use of AS4454 is legislated and helps to set out specific technical obligations that need to be achieved for a specific biosecurity purpose.

It is always important to look up how a specific standard may fit into the legislative hierarchy of your state, including for its specific purpose. You can use Aust Lii to search for legislation that refers to specific standards. If you want to understand what regulations apply to producing compost in your area, I am happy to help. And if you think you need to talk to an environmental lawyer – we have contacts.

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