We recently sat down with Serena Klein, a newly re-elected member of the EUMEPS Board of Directors and Managing Director of Germany’s IVH. Our conversation explores her unique journey in the EPS industry, the imminent challenges facing EUMEPS, and the bold strides IVH is taking in the German market to drive sustainability and innovation. Join us as we delve into these compelling topics.
As the first and only woman on the EUMEPS Board of Directors, you are a frontrunner. Why did you first decide to run for election? What can you bring to the table compared to your gentlemanly colleagues?
When EUMEPS was reorganised and the composition of the new board was under discussion, two things were clear to me: first, my association with German EPS manufacturers for thermal insulation is one of the big ones in the European EPS industry. The German market, along with Poland, is the most important for EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) in the construction sector. We, the IVH, set decisive topics and often work on projects with which we set the pace for Europe. Therefore: We cannot and must not be absent from the EUMEPS board. Second: I like challenges. I always say that as an intelligent person, you can familiarise yourself with everything and be interested in everything.
EUMEPS has changed a lot in the last few years. As a Board Member, what do you think are the challenges the association will have to face in the years to come?
First, I would like to thank everyone who was and is involved in the transformation of EUMEPS. In particular, I would like to thank Jürgen Lang, Director General of EUMEPS. Despite various obstacles, Jürgen managed to build a modern association out of a very outdated association, which often revolved around itself in its discussions. In addition to him, EUMEPS has now a great and professional team that really gives 100% and stands behind him and the association. And yes, the challenges are not diminishing. Everything that is called plastic is up for review by the European Union Commission, be it in terms of chemicals law, disposable packaging, recycling quotas and recycled content, standardisation, design for recycling and not to forget: microplastic losses. Even the United Nations has decided on a Plastic Treaty, which will take a close look at how much and what kind of plastic is in circulation worldwide and how it can be recycled.
You are also some sort of meteor – outsider if you will – when it comes to the EPS industry. Your background prior to IVH speaks for itself (journalist, Public Relations Officer for members of the German Parliament). What made you want to work in this sector?
I’ll put it this way: as a trained journalist, I have this eternal spark of curiosity, of thirst for knowledge. Together with my experience as a public relations officer in the German Parliament, I was also able to take a look behind the political scenes. Living in Berlin, I am also surrounded by hundreds of associations in this very lobby capital of Germany. It was only a logical step to look in this direction as well. I really enjoyed my time at the former German Insulation Industry Association. In the construction sector, so many exciting topics come together at once that it never gets boring. In addition, I work in the insulating materials industry on the central issues of our society: climate protection, circular economy, energy efficiency and energy independence and, last but not least, quality of life.
What are your experiences as a woman in a men-dominated industry, where do you see the need for more diversity? What value does it bring to the industry?
These are not easy questions to answer. I’m neither a civil engineer by training nor do I originally come from the EPS industry. And yet, 5 years ago, my board of directors promoted me to the role of managing director. That speaks for itself.
Nevertheless, it is a fact that the medium-sized industry in Germany is generally run by men. This certainly has something to do with the history of role distribution in family structures. But we cannot afford not to involve women even more. Germany suffers from a shortage of skilled workers. In particular, we need more technically interested women. For them to choose this profession, companies should become flexible when it comes to working time models. It needs a different approach. And not just for women, but especially for young people. Because in Germany, skilled workers can now choose where they work, the demand is so strong and the shortage so great.
National Association IVH, to which you are Managing Director, only represents the EPS insulation industries. What are the opportunities for these industries in the German market?
80%of all EPS produced in Germany goes into the construction sector, and the rest goes into packaging. EPS is one of the most frequently used insulating materials in Germany, has been in use in construction for more than 60 years and is therefore thoroughly tested and reliable. Without our versatile insulating material, Germany cannot achieve the climate protection goals it has set itself in the building sector. At the same time, we are facing a green transformation: companies do not only have to produce in a climate-neutral manner by 2045, but our EPS insulation products must also continue to improve their very good ecological values. Be it about “green” raw materials, increasing recycled content, or about innovations.
On the other hand, what are the biggest challenges ahead of EPS insulation? Can you think of anything that is not currently foreseen by the industry?
I can’t look into a crystal ball. Nevertheless, we should all work to ensure that plastic is not demonised by politicians and society. Whether for vehicles, electronics, construction, packaging, household, or medicine – you need them everywhere. Because they are powerful, durable, efficient, and diverse. And increasingly recyclable.
When it comes to sustainability and circularity, EPS has come a long way but is finally making good progress. What do you see as decisive factors in reaching full circularity?
There are numerous factors. I’ll just give you an example: for over 30 years, our members have been taking back offcuts from construction sites and putting them back into production or into further use to make other products. For this purpose, transparent bags are delivered to the construction site, in which the construction workers are supposed to collect the offcuts neatly separated. Unfortunately, too much waste is still thrown into these bags, leftover food, other materials, etc. For our companies, this means they have to sort out each bag by hand or return it due to contamination, ultimately the material then goes to incineration. That’s very unfortunate. This is a waste of resources that we urgently need. Because EPS lasts the life of a house, and because renovation rates are low and even new construction is collapsing, not enough material comes back. This requires clarification and a sharper awareness of all those involved. EPS is not waste, but a valuable resource.
How about the recycling rates in Germany? Can you tell us a bit more?
We have signed the EUMEPS Pledge, a clear commitment to increase recycling activities and lead to a circular economy by 2025. We are currently conducting an EPS material flow study to see how far we have come and where there is potential. We are currently reviewing the result and derive further recommendations for action from this.
Companies usually have excellent initiatives when it comes to recycling. Can you share with us examples from Germany?
An outstanding example is the first closed-loop economy using EPS from demolition or rehabilitation work. This old EPS still contains the now-banned flame retardant HBCD. According to legal requirements, this may only be destroyed without leaving any residue by means of thermal incineration. With the PS Loop plant, owned by three of our members, the HBCD-containing EPS can now also be recycled. The raw material polystyrene as well as the bromine from the flame retardant can be recovered and used for new products. This circular economy solution is certainly unique to date. But it is fair to say that PS Loop was originally an initiative of the entire European polystyrene value chain. More than 70 members and partners from over 15 European countries have invested their manpower and finances over the years because they all believed in the success of this innovative recycling process. Without this initial commitment, it could not have been proven that the recycling technique works.
What are IVH’s actions to show the world the engagement of EPS industries to meet the standards set by the European Union when it comes to sustainability, circularity but also energy efficiency?
In the field of standardisation, we currently have major challenges ahead of us. On the one hand, Germany presented its Circular Economy standardisation roadmap at the beginning of this year. It contains many standardisation needs for plastics and in the construction industry. Revised or completely new standards are important so that, for example, a strong market for recycling material can develop. Priorities that affect us are sustainability assessment, lifespan extension, digital product passport, recyclability and end of waste. We are well positioned: My managing director colleague Ulrich Meier, who has been with the IVH for 17 years, an engineer in the construction industry, has worked his way into the field of standardisation. He is active in numerous German and European nomenclature committees. Employees of our members are also active in standardisation. From 2024, we will also be a member of the German Association of the Plastics Processing Industry. Together, standardisation work can certainly be divided up even better.
Finally, what are your resolutions when it comes to your term as EUMEPS Board Member?
I would like to continue to contribute and support with my knowledge and commitment to move things forward.
Let me mention the launch of www.epscycle.nl as a good example. The German IVH, together with the Danish association EPS Branchen and the Dutch association Stybenex, presented this joint internet platform on July 5, at the World Congress of Architects in Copenhagen. Based on the German EPS Cycle concept, we considered how we can act pan-European and gradually represent all recycling activities in Europe. Did you know? – The Danish EPS association and its members have operated a take-back scheme for EPS since 1995! Initially, it covered just packaging, but in 2020 they expanded the program to include more applications, including construction site cut-offs. EPS producers in the Netherlands also encourage high-quality recycling from EPS. Households bring EPS for a second life to the local recycling centre. There are also multiple recycling systems for commercial EPS users.
Now, EPS Cycle is not only a German but a pan-European take-back system, which describes how used EPS can effectively be taken back for use in the production of new EPS materials. As such it is a mark of commitment to the circular economy for both the companies and the national associations associated with EPS Cycle.