Posted on Aug 20, 2020
Ever since presenting its European Green Deal in October 2019, the European Commission has been working on a Renovation Wave policy. It has also included this policy in its post-COVID-19 recovery plan. Lobbyists for the mineral wool industry, which produces this artificial insulation material that consists of man-made vitreous fibres (MMVF) and is also commonly known as stone wool or glass wool, have complained that they did not find “any clear renovation fund”, i.e. any specific funding line reserved for renovation in the final proposal.
However, the leaders of the EU member states reached a political agreement at the special European Council summit, which went on for almost five days at the end of July, on a long-term and recovery budget for the EU of unprecedented proportions. This has made it more likely that the EU will indeed invest many millions of European Taxpayers’ money in the renovation of public and private buildings, in line with the EU’s climate and environmental goals. The Commission is expected to adopt this initiative in September. In parallel, it has sought comment from the public on the revision of the EU law that governs construction products. That revision and the implementation of the Renovation Wave could keep policymakers occupied for a few years before citizens see their effect on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Industry Committee of the European Parliament adopted a motion for a resolution on how to maximise the energy efficiency potential of the EU building stock, after receiving an opinion from the Environment Committee. These include the question of which kind of insulation material the EU wants to promote with public money.
- Will EU renovation wave ignore health concerns about mineral wool as part of the recovery from COVID-19 crisis?
EU Today has already reported that the mineral wool industry lobbied the Parliament on the matter, as the Member of Parliament (MEP) leading on it disclosed. Three major mineral wool manufacturers and their association, EURIMA have self-declared spending of between EUR 1.2 million and just under EUR 1.6 million per year for monitoring and influencing the EU institutions, employing eight lobbyists with accreditation to the Parliament. This does not include the funding for the organisation Fire Safe Europe (FSEU), which has also been very active in the Parliament.
The independence of FSEU from the mineral wool producers that founded it has been questioned in a report, which another construction product company funded and was referenced in a 2017 study for the European Commission. In Brussels, as the lobbying capital of Europe, access of accredited industry stakeholders to MEPs is not unusual. However, allegations such as this against the FSEU are. Also, it is noteworthy that when they are doing their job of defending industry interests, the representatives of for example Rockwool are sometimes rather generously categorised as “green building advocates” in publications that the same industry allegedly sponsors.
Yet, it was rather astonishing when of all political groups in the Parliament, the Greens Group proposed to amend the draft opinion so that the European Parliament would call stone wool waste “bulky but recyclable”, while expressing its concern about the safe handling of other insulation materials.
Mineral wool waste generated during renovations and demolitions faces general technical challenges, also regarding the purity of the waste, which would be required for recycling. Besides that, it must be kept in mind that EU law treats “mineral wool” in general as a “suspected human carcinogen”, whilst allowing for certain exceptions from this classification. Mineral wool produced before 1996 generally does not fulfil their requirements. Furthermore, health concerns remain also for so-called new mineral wool, produced since 1996. Crucially, during renovation and demolition in the real world, construction workers, do-it-yourself enthusiasts and waste management companies often cannot know whether they are dealing with old or new mineral wool, as a recent, detailed publication by researchers from the University of Leoben, Austria also found. It states that “no testing methods to analyse mineral wool waste at the construction site for its possible hazardous property (HP7, carcinogenic) have been developed yet”. It generally cautions that “fibres of mineral wool can be released into the environment due to the production process, the usage of the product and the demolition and dismantling of buildings containing mineral wool products, which can cause health difficulties because of airborne respirable fibres with low biosolubility.” Some characteristics of such fibres are similar to those of asbestos, it also finds. Earlier this year, Austrian state television, ORF reported on the results in practice, where Tellwolle, as mineral wool is called there, is known to be “as carcinogenic as asbestos’, unrecyclable and not even suitable for incineration, but is instead piling up in landfills.
However, in the end, the final motion is based on a broad compromise between the major political groups EPP, S&D, Renew, and the Greens/EFA. It avoids the European Parliament favouring stone wool over other materials.
The final text now stresses the need for the adequate management and reduction of construction and demolition waste in general. Facilities should be created for its collection, take back and sorting to ensure safe handling, recycling or reuse, as well as the removal and substitution of hazardous substances in it, in order to protect the health of occupants and workers as well as the environment. It calls on the European Commission to propose concrete measures on these issues.
The European Parliament is expected to adopt the resolution during its plenary on 14th September. Its general direction is commendable. However, it remains to be seen how EU policymakers will address the health and environment concerns surrounding mineral wool and whether it is the right choice as a recipient of public support in the Renovation Wave, for insulation product users and home dwellers alike.
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