On the 26th of April, EUMEPS organised the event “EPSolution!”, the occasion to gather various stakeholders to discuss how Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) facilitates the transformation to a more sustainable and energy-efficient European economy. The different conferences, under the umbrella of “Smart insulation as a remedy for climate change and Europe’s energy dependency”, focused on the essential role of EPS as an insulation material to achieve Europe’s climate goals by 2050, and presented all the recycling methods of EPS to a large audience.
The Impact of EPS in the construction sector and Europe
Klaus Ries, President of EUMEPS, opened the event by reminding the audience of the incredible properties of the EPS material used in the building stock to save energy. “When we talk about energy savings, we talk about EPS. From a technical point of view, EPS has superior performance than any other material, is recyclable and is cost-efficient.”, he said. The properties of EPS go beyond the material itself to impact the citizen’s life: because EPS is an affordable and highly efficient material to insulate (but not only), construction and renovation are accessible to everyone across Europe.
Klaus Ries, President of EUMEPS
Following Klaus Ries’ introduction, Jürgen Lang, Director General of EUMEPS, hoped for the more than 100 attendees to leave with a deeper knowledge of EPS’ abilities. “EPS is a sustainable high-quality insulation material. Its performance is outstanding”, he explained. “It has more recycling opportunities than any other insulating material and is widely recycled across Europe”. Because of its lightweight – EPS is indeed composed of 98% of air – and its toxic-free composition, EPS is also extremely easy to process and is handled safely. Workers, for instance, do not need to carry masks while handling EPS insulation panels. “EPS is irreplaceable in the construction sector, and our Industry has a key role to play” concluded Jürgen Lang.
Jürgen Lang, Director General of EUMEPS
Reaching Europe’s energy autonomy and a climate-neutral building stock
The first speaker of the day, Stefan Moser, Head of Unit in DG ENER at the European Commission, presented the challenges currently faced by Europe and the EPS industry. “On one hand, we have the climate crisis, the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and on the other hand the need for energy savings”, he explained. And more, the Russian aggression towards Ukraine was a wake-up call for Europe as it demonstrated the limit of its energy resources and forced industries to rethink their business model. Europe also accelerated its transition to renewable energies and its full autonomy. Indeed, in 2020, more than 57% of Europe’s gas needs were imported, of which 24,4% came from Russia.
Stefan Moser, from the European Commission
Then, Stefan Moser addressed the European vision of zero-emissions buildings by 2050 as assessed by the revised European Performance of Building Directive (EPBD). “We are not talking about zero energy buildings or passive buildings, but buildings where energy efficiency, energy savings and renewable energies go together to be climate neutral”, he explained. The establishment of a building renovation passport, for instance, will be one of many steps to access financing to renovate old buildings. Synergies must also be found to generate an economy of scale, for instance through renewable energies, the integration of transport systems and possible heating and cooling solutions. “Indeed, you need to know as Industries what will need to be done”, concluded Stefan Moser.
How building envelopes can save and store energy
The floor was then to Dr Prof.-Ing. Andreas Holm, from the FIW Institute of Munich. He gave an in-depth conference on the correlation between heat pumps and the energy efficiency of the building envelope and how the sudden increase in the gas energy bill, caused by the war in Ukraine, increased the number of heat pump installations. Retrofitting (insulation) and renewable energies are directly affecting heat pump installations. “We need to work on efficiency, but we also need a transformation in heating systems”, he explained. Replacing our fossil heating systems with heat pumps is also a key point to reaching energy efficiency and optimised insulation, as today about 50% of households are heated with gas.
Andreas Holms from the FIW Institute
Andreas Homs then continued his presentation by demonstrating how the grid, buildings and heat pumps can work together not only to save energy but to store it. Unfortunately, most buildings are not ready to operate efficiently with a heat pump because of a combination of poor insulation and unoptimized heating systems. “The [building] envelope is defining how much energy the radiators are giving to the room.”, Andreas Holm explained. Changing radiators without adapting the pimping system is not enough to cover the heating load. The electric grid is also changing with an increased demand for electricity to operate more heat pumps but also because of the greater use of electric cars and devices. “What is most important is when we need electricity and in which quantity, because there is a strong interaction between the grid and the building”, Andreas Holm added. And to conclude: “A good building envelope increases the capacity and improves the reliability of the circuit without producing any electrons”.
EPS abilities to reach the European climate goals by 2050
In Europe, 25% of insulation is made of EPS, reminded Alan Moss, Head of Division RAW at BEWI, to the attendees. The benefits of EPS in construction are numerous: great dimension stability, stable R-Value, easy to handle, lightweight and, of course, 100% recyclable. “The carbon footprint of buildings needs to be neutral by 2030”, he said, “[…] And EPS is going to be a key element in this transition”. Better insulation in roofs, walls, floors, etc. improves energy efficiency and reduces energy demand, and appropriate infrastructures maximise the benefit of a clean energy transition. EPS has also a low environmental impact compared to other insulation materials. “We have been using EPS insulation for over 60 years, and we have no negative impact on people, on the environment, on animals. We even create some integrated products for birds to be able to install their nests!”, said Alan Moss. The solution to reducing the greenhouse effect is also there, as insulation materials save 100 to 200 times the energy used for their production.
Alan Moss, from BEWI
How the Italian “super bonus” stimulated the economy and saved CO2 emissions
Luca Saccardi, Vice president of S.T.S. Polistirolo and representative of the AIPE, then proceeded by presenting and explaining the advantages of the Italian “super bonus” – financial aid to renovate buildings. Based on tax deduction, the “super bonus” was also accessible to the more modest households. “In Italy, we wanted to allow renovating to anybody, without any discrimination”, he explained. Timing is also crucial because legislation such as the “super bonus” creates a peak in the need for workforce and raw materials. “From the Italian experience, I can tell you that there would have been no “super bonus” without EPS, and I am convinced that there will be no EPBD without EPS. Companies must be prepared”, he added.
Luca Saccardi, from the AIPE
The impact of the “super bonus” on the Italian economy was significant: it generated 56,1 billion euros of GDP for the construction sector and 25,3 billion euros for society through the creation of jobs and a stimulated local economy. The “super bonus” also contributed to reducing CO2 emissions by an estimated 1 million MT between 2019 and 2022. “We are creating and generating value by insulating only. This is incredible”, he concluded.
EPS methods for recycling and innovation to protect the environment
EPS is 100% recyclable. Recycling, however, is not a one-step process. The EPS material must be collected, sorted (sometimes more once), and then recycled to finally be sold to customers or reused directly in factories. “One of our main requirements is that the material must be clean and dry”, explained Adela Lankl, Office Management Recycling at Karl Bachl Kunststoffverarbeitung, during her presentation. EPS can be recycled through 2 mechanical methods: extrusion – which is the most common method – or lightweight filled. With the extrusion method, the compacted EPS material is heated, melted, and mixed several times, and finally cut into pieces the size of small grains which are stored to be used later. With the lightweight fill method, cut-offs from construction are sorted and shredded through a specific mechanical process until they come out in their original bean shape.
Adela Lankl, from Karl Bachl Kunststoffverarbeitung
In 2021, the Conversio study estimated that 507kt of EPS were collected in Europe; but only 165kt were sorted to be recycled. “This is a message of hope. We can do better; we can do more as a recycler, but we cannot do it alone. We need support because we cannot influence what happened before the EPS is brought to us”, Adela Lankl preached.
In the next presentation, Richard Geevers gave a brief explanation of the objectives of PS Loop, an innovative project aiming to develop a safe and sustainable closed-looped treatment process to remove HBCD from polystyrene foam wastes. “We know that there will be new challenges in the next few years. And we also know that it will be impossible to tackle these challenges with the same technical expertise and approaches as we did over the past 20 years. […] My business case is to extract HBCD from EPS […] because we need to protect the environment”, he concluded.
Richard Geevers, from PS Loop
Finally, Ewen Chesnel, Senior Manager of Industry Affairs at BASF, explained the role of chemical recycling in the mix of solutions for EPS as it consists in transforming the chemical structure of the material to produce substances used as raw materials for the manufacturing of new products. Chemical recycling is an interesting solution for the current challenging waste – e.g. products put on the market several years ago. Ewen Chesnel continued by explaining how the mass-balance approach would smoothen the transition to alternative resources for Industries by co-processing fossil and alternative feedstock in existing plants. In this way, mass balance products purchased would allow answering the market demand when a dedicated value chain is not yet in place.
Ewen Chesnel from BASF
The last presentation of the day was given by Alina Stanciu, Assistant to MEP Maria Grapini on the latest development of the Construction Products Regulation (CPR). “We believe that the construction sector needs harmonised rules”, she says, “At the European level, it is also necessary to take into account the circular economy and the impact on the environment when applying the legislation”.
Alina Stanciu, from the European Parliament
The event ended with a panel discussion on the circularity of construction products and the end of waste.
A panel discussion between Adela Lankl, Alina Stanciu, Jürgen Lang, Werner Bosmans, Ewen Chesnel and Richard Geevers.