Smoke and mirrors: How the mineral wool industry leaves its mark on national and EU policy

Brussels is preoccupied with the European Green Deal which involves a ‘Renovation Wave’ in the European Union for public and private buildings, which will include a focus on energy efficiency and affordability. Insulation materials will inevitably play a part in that process and it seems clear that insulation producers such as the mineral wool industry will lobby to achieve acceptance within the renovation wave.

As the Environment and Health Committee is working on an opinion to inform the ITRE report, they are receiving proposed amendments from MEPs, including amendment 60 by Jutta Paulus (Germany) on behalf of the Greens Group, seeking to insert the words “recyclable” when describing stone wool, a form of mineral wool, or Manmade Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), as the synthetic insulation material is more officially known. This tabled amendment on the part of the Greens has drawn some surprise, given that there are health concerns related to mineral wool, including Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In addition, there is significant doubt as to whether the material is in fact recyclable, with claims it is only theoretically recyclable or recyclable to a limited extent. Eurima, the European mineral wool insulation manufacturers association, says that recycling options for mineral wool exist only “in some countries, for example in the brick industry or recycling offered by a mineral wool manufacturer”

The mineral wool industry is known for its expensive and determined lobbying. The draft report of the ITRE Rapporteur lists as entities that have lobbied the European Parliament on this as, among others, Rockwool, Saint Gobain and Knauf Insulation, which produce mineral wool, and their association Eurima. On the EU Transparency Register, these organisations have self-declared that they spend between EUR 1.2 million and just under EUR 1.6 million combined per year on monitoring and influencing the EU institutions, employing eight lobbyists with accreditation to the European Parliament.

In this context, Fire Safe Europe (FSEU) has a special role. FSEU has been very active in the Parliament and has also lobbied it on the energy efficiency resolution. The organisation self-declares a budget of over EUR 460,000 for four accredited lobbyists. It describes its mission as improving fire safety in buildings for people and society. However, in a report titled ‘“Smoke & Mirrors” – An analysis of statistical and other claims made by Fire Safe Europe’, which has been referenced in a 2017 study for the European Commission, building materials company Kingspan complained about FSEU. According to the Kingspan report, FSEU made a series of misleading and unfounded claims based on the questionable use of inaccurate and poorly researched data, misquoting and selectively using sources. “Smoke & Mirrors” alleged that over 80% of FSEU’s funding would come from its founding members and main actors Rockwool, Knauf and Paroc, all manufacturers of mineral fibre insulation materials. The three would effectively block the seats on the FSEU board, as well as access to the organisation, for other insulation product producers. It questioned whether given its composition, FSEU can claim to be serving wider interests.

In France, the so-called isolgate (Insulationgate) case culminated in a judgment of the country’s highest court at the end of 2019. The case has been likened to Volkswagen’s Dieselgate for the mineral wool industry, including its national association FILMM, e.g. by former Member of Parliament Jean Yves Le Déaut, who is also the former Vice-President of the French Parliamentary Office for the Assessment of Scientific and Technological Choices. Multiple commenters have argued that the mineral wool industry would have continued to inflate performance levels of their products until today. Insulation expert Claude Lefrançois accused mineral wool companies of having been involved in “greenwashing operations”.

In Denmark, the mineral wool industry lobby intervened in early June, after the government had announced that it would introduce requirements that companies should replace mineral wool as far as possible with non-hazardous or less hazardous materials. Those requirements would be part of a politically agreed model that lies in a reasonable place between the wishes of the industry and workers exposed to mineral wool, the government had said. This reportedly caused confusion about a phase-out of mineral wool in Denmark, the home of one of its biggest producers, Rockwool. After intervention by the mineral wool lobby, the Ministry clarified that the material would be subject to the general prevention principle that applies to all substances and materials covered by the Order on Work on Substances and Materials.

The might of the mineral wool lobby seems clear. But what is also clear is that Brussels increasingly has its eyes open, especially when it comes to ensuring that the much needed European Green Deal and Renovation Wave are firmly rooted in a commitment to energy efficiency, affordability, safety and sustainability. It is to be hoped that the industry will not be allowed to manipulate this important policy, no matter how much money they throw at it.

Read also: Denmark sets out the rules on mineral wool health risks

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor and Brussels correspondent of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

Gary's latest book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon

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