Pressure builds for the #GreenDeal ‘Renovation Wave’ to address mineral wool health risks and lack of recyclability

| June 19, 2020

The European Commission’s ambitious European Green Deal aims to address the twin challenge of energy efficiency and affordability and states that the European Union and the member states should engage in a ‘Renovation Wave’ of public and private buildings.

This policy enjoys broad support and the renovation wave has also become a key element of the Commission’s post-COVID-19 Recovery Plan, the flagship €750 billion fiscal package which is top of the agenda for Friday’s “virtual” summit in Brussels of EU leaders and heads of state. The council will again be online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Commission is currently consulting on the Renovation Wave and is expected to adopt this initiative as planned later this year. Insulation is likely to be a major plank of this project. However, concerns are growing that potential health risks from a widely used insulation material called Manmade Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), also known as mineral wool, along with fears it is not a recyclable material, must be taken into account as Europe renovates its buildings.

The Commission stated in its new Circular Economy Action Plan that the Renovation Wave would lead to significant improvements in energy efficiency in the EU and would be implemented in line with circular economy principles, including recycling. It would pay special attention to insulation materials, which generate a growing waste stream. In April, Pascal Canfin (RE, France), the Chair of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) made calls for renovation schemes to play a central role in a green recovery plan, with European funds to insulate every school in Europe.

Against this backdrop, the European Parliament is working on a resolution on maximizing the energy efficiency potential of the EU building stock. The draft report of the responsible Industry Committee of the European Parliament (ITRE) by Rapporteur Ciarán Cuffe (Greens/EFA, Ireland) considers that energy-efficient buildings should be safe and sustainable because “now, more than ever, citizens require and deserve a healthy and safe place to call home.”

The Environment and Health Committee (ENVI) is working on an opinion to inform the ITRE report. The draft opinion of the ENVI Rapporteur Maria Spyraki (EPP, Greece) “[s]tresses that there is no common EU legislation on the management of bulky waste in general, and of polystyrene and stone wool in particular; expresses its concern about the safe handling of insulation materials, given the possible inclusion of dangerous substances in them”.

Multiple amendments to that suggestion have been proposed, including amendment 60, by Jutta Paulus (Germany) on behalf of the Greens Group: “Stresses that dumping of waste is illegal and that there is no common EU legislation on the management of bulky but recyclable waste such as stone wool; expresses its concern about the safe handling of insulation materials such as polystyrene, during demolition as well as in waste treatment, given the possible inclusion of dangerous substances in them that put a threat to the non-toxic environment […]”. It is clear in this amendment that a claim is attempted to be made that mineral wool is recyclable, but that claim appears to be far from clear cut.

The recyclability of the mineral wool has been challenged. It is a material made from synthetic fibres, despite its very natural sounding names like “mineral wool” or “stone wool”. Stone wool, which is a form of mineral wool has been deemed only theorectically recyclable or recyclable to a limited extent which rather challenges the position of ENVI Shadow Rapporteur Paulus. Even 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”.

A 2009 academic article notes that there is hardly any reliable data available on the actual volume of mineral wool wastes. There are also concerns that any carcinogenic properties of the material do not simply disappear just because it is being recycled. Mineral wool wastes share the properties of the original material; this includes “the carcinogenic potential of old mineral wools, secondary components such as binder and lubricant contents or aluminium layers, etc., as well as low bulk density.”

Mineral wool is treated under the EU Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP Regulation 1272/2008 as “suspected human carcinogen”. The so-called “Q note” allows for exceptions from this classification under certain requirements, which mineral wool produced before 1996 generally do not fulfil. Possibly carcinogenic mineral wool has not been banned across the EU yet, e.g. in Austria. Health concerns are not limited to possible carcinogenicity. There are other health concerns which also apply to so-called new mineral wool, produced since 1996, including skin abnormalities and lung disease including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). These potential health risks add to concerns over recyclability, raising questions over whether it is wise to recycle a material when there are such concerns over the safety of the original material.

Discussion will intensify as key dates approach, such as 25 June when the ENVI opinion is to be adopted, followed by the adoption of the ITRE report on 6 July and the adoption of the content of ITRE report by EP plenary on 14 September. The revised Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will also be discussed at today’s summit.

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