As a materials technology company, we aim to drive an even more efficient use of metals, energy and other inputs in our operations to balance environmental and economic factors and work to increase closed-loop relationships with our customers.
As part of our commitment to sustainability, we take into account the environmental impact of our operations, and strive to continuously improve our environmental performance, implement risk management strategies based on valid data and sound science, actively participate in the management and remediation of risks that are the result of historical operations and facilitate and encourage responsible design, use, re-use, recycling and disposal of our products.
ENERGY CONSUMPTION VS 2015
METAL EMISSIONS TO AIR VS 2015
METAL EMISSIONS TO WATER VS 2015
Our success is measured in our ability to make sustainability a competitive advantage by being increasingly energy and material efficient compared with our 2015 baseline.
Umicore is a world leader in the eco-efficient recycling and refining of precious metal-bearing materials.
These materials include by-products from other non-ferrous industries, end-of-life consumer and industrial products and e-scrap. Our eco-efficient process entails maximizing both the physical recycling of materials and the revenue obtained, while minimizing the associated environmental burden and total cost. We recover and sell precious, special, secondary and base metals and our closed-loop business model maximizes material re-use.
This ambition to address increasing global resource scarcity and achieve material efficiency is an important factor in our strategy. Over the span of our Horizon 2020 strategy we have consistently secured over half our materials supply from non-primary sources. In 2020, 64% of the materials we used were from end-of-life or secondary origin, while 34% were of primary origin.
SECONDARY & END-OF-LIFE MATERIALS IN INPUT MIX
In our Horizon 2020 strategy, we defined energy efficiency and metal emissions reduction as key eco-efficiency performance indicators. We pursue eco-efficiency initiatives to generate compelling value and a competitive edge through reduced costs, minimizing our carbon footprint and strengthening our license to operate. In addition, we believe that it is equally important to continuously monitor, control and report our performance in relation to other environmental aspects. Our Horizon 2020 approach of continuous improvement was successful in improving our efficiency and reducing our impact.
We continue to invest in research to innovate in clean mobility and sustainability.
Umicore prioritizes R&D to support our Horizon 2020 ambitions by focusing on the development of innovative solutions for materials and processes. Our ability to create a pipeline for these innovations and solutions is an important component of our long-term eco-efficiency performance.
Umicore plays a key role in the transition to a low-carbon society.
We produce rechargeable battery materials for EVs, catalysts for reducing transport and industrial emissions, and contribute to resource stewardship by recycling metals and end-of-life products in a closed loop. In our own operations, we are committed to achieving further energy efficiency compared to our 2015 levels.
Energy consumption is continually monitored and regulated at all sites. The bigger contributors are additionally encouraged to develop energy efficiency projects and are required to report on them. Several Umicore sites have implemented the ISO 50001 energy efficiency standard and the 2 largest sites in Belgium have been part of the energy efficiency covenant with the Flemish government since 2004.
Normalized Energy consumption
In 2020, 26 sites accounted for 95% of the Group’s energy consumption with a total of 38 energy efficiency projects implemented over the course of the year. By the end of 2020, Umicore had achieved a 17% reduction in energy consumption compared to the 2015 baseline, correcting for production intensity. This result is the combination of improvements in productivity and the continuous implementation of energy efficiency projects. Over the last 5 years, 189 efficiency projects were implemented, the bulk of which tackled heat, HVAC, lighting and process efficiencies.
When looking at our carbon emissions, we register a 7% reduction compared to 2019. In 2020, we built a nitric acid plant at our Hoboken site in Belgium, where we also produce sulfuric acid. Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of sulfuric acid production also known as laughing gas, is a greenhouse gas that has about 300 times more impact on global warming than carbon dioxide (CO2). By capturing and transforming nitrous oxide released during production into nitric acid, we avoid the emission of nitrous oxide into the air. In doing so, we reduce our carbon footprint by almost 40,000 tonnes CO2e/year and turn waste into a resource, a pillar of the Umicore business model. When compared to the outset of our Horizon 2020 strategy, our carbon emissions have increased 3%. In that time, Umicore has expanded in terms of operational footprint and ramped up production lines while maintaining a continuous process improvement approach. For more information, see note E3.
In recent years, as part of our commitment to sustainable operations, we began examining the share of renewable energy in our purchased energy mix. 2019 marked the first year we systematically collected information from our sites on purchased electricity sourced from wind, solar and/or biomass energy and could report the result. In 2020, the share of renewables in Umicore’s purchased energy mix was 15%. For more information, see note E4.
While choosing the share of renewables in our purchased energy mix is a challenge in some of the regions where we are most active, Umicore is actively pursuing an increase in the share of renewables in our purchased energy mix.
We monitor and take steps to reduce the impact of metals emissions on the environment – both to water and air. Each of the different metals that we emit has a specific level of potential toxicity for the environment and human health. For this reason, we focus on reducing the impact of our emissions.
The aim for Horizon 2020 was to reduce metal emissions impacts while considering growing volumes of production. While monitoring continues on all sites, reporting focuses on the 10 or fewer sites that contribute to 95% of the emissions expressed in impact.
In 2020, the impact of metal emissions to air fell by 67% compared to 2015, mainly thanks to further efforts to improve filtration and process efficiency. Compared to 2015, after correction for activity levels, the impact of metal emissions to water in 2020 fell by 59%. For more information, see note E2.
Umicore is a global company with a global footprint. In terms of our products and services, we are uniquely positioned to address global megatrends — namely the need for cleaner air and resource stewardship, and environmental performance and safety are at the heart of our process designs.
Umicore continues to provide advanced emission control and battery material technologies while advocating for a ramp-up of clean energy and clean mobility technologies. We also emphasize the links between a Circular Economy and responsible sourcing, resource efficiency, waste management and high-quality recycling. We aspire to turn sustainability into a greater competitive edge through our unique business model and our commitment to ethical and responsible sourcing.
Part of our commitment to sustainability is to take into account the environmental impact of our operations with growing and expanding capacity. Many factors are considered in choosing to build new sites or to expand existing sites.
Our new site in Nysa, Poland, for example, was selected for its vicinity to our European customers (providing reduced transport impact of our products) and a skilled technical workforce, as well as low-carbon electricity supply. The Nysa site will make use of wind, hydro and photovoltaic energy.
Active participation in the management and remediation of risks from operations is an integral part of the Umicore Way. Our proactive program for assessing and remediating, where necessary, soil and groundwater contamination progresses tirelessly.
For more, see note E7.
Managing impact in Hoboken
The Umicore site in Hoboken is one of the world’s largest precious metals refiners, offering recycling and refining services for precious metal bearing materials such as by-products from industry, electronic scrap and spent industrial and automotive catalysts. For several decades, the blood levels of children living close to the plant have been monitored twice per year by the authorities. In July 2020 the readings of the children living close to the Umicore recycling plant in Hoboken, Belgium, showed elevated levels of lead in their blood after multiple years of steady decreases, with historically low levels in 2019. Although the root cause investigation showed no major direct source of lead emissions in the plant, Umicore is aware that the risks associated with lead need to be well managed at all times. Various actions have been taken to reduce diffuse emissions and to ensure that the local community and industry can co-exist sustainably.
From 1922 until the end of the 1970s, Umicore’s predecessor companies manufactured radium and uranium products in Olen, Belgium. Until the 1960s radium was the only treatment for cancer. Uranium oxide was used in fuel rods for nuclear power stations. Since the 1970s there has no longer been any radium or uranium production at the Olen site. All buildings and installations where radioactive material was processed have been dismantled. The residues storage area has been cleaned up to eliminate any possible adverse effect on employees, the surrounding population or the environment.
Some low radioactive residues remain from these past activities and are stored at the Umicore site in Olen using the best available techniques and in concertation with the authorities. These residues cannot be compared in any way to the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Waste from nuclear power plants is category C waste (according to the classification of the International Atomic Energy Agency) which is highly radioactive and generates significant heat. Such waste has to be buried at a depth of several hundred meters. The residues present on the Umicore site (essentially category A residues and a small quantity of category B) are of very low radioactivity and are stored according to the guidelines set out by the relevant federal agencies.
In Olen, Umicore has state-of-the-art storage facilities of industrial residues where there is only a small fraction that is lightly contaminated. Additionally, there is a dedicated facility on site, built in the 80s, to contain radioactive storage for light radioactive materials. Strict inspections are carried out regularly by the competent authorities.
While a study in the 1990s, still applicable today, stated that 'at present there is no danger to public health and the environment', Umicore has sought a long-term solution to maximize safety in the storage of the historical radioactive waste. Umicore has depolluted the premises outside the plant in order to make permanent improvements to the existing conditions and to provide effective long-term protection to human beings and the environment. We continue to work with the authorities on monitoring and on long-term solutions.
Umicore has set in place a monitoring program with an external radiation expert, and periodic reporting to the authorities. This program includes visual inspection to ensure the integrity of the external grass cover, radon emanation measurements, stability measurements and monitoring of groundwater quality. The government has confirmed that there are no risks to the health of employees, local residents or the environment.
“There is no danger to public health.”
-- FANC, Federal Agency for Nuclear Control
Since 2009 the Federal and Regional Agencies (FANC, NIRAS and OVAM) have been working with Umicore to find a long-term solution to the storage of historical radioactive waste. Early in 2020, the Federal Government, through FANC and NIRAS, issued a vision document in which a final waste storage destination is proposed to deal once and for all with the historical radioactive legacy at the Olen site. Umicore fully supports the proposed approach and is cooperating with the authorities on planning the next steps in this major step forward towards a long-term, sustainable and agreed solution to Olen’s radioactive legacy. Working groups comprising representatives of OVAM, NIRAS, FANC and Umicore are being formed to shape this program.
Open and constructive dialogue
While no further action is needed at present, the ongoing proactive and constructive cooperation between FANC, the Municipality of Olen and Umicore has been publicly confirmed by the neighbors and by the local authorities .
“We have always had an open dialogue with Umicore about radioactivity.” -- Seppe Bouquillon, Mayor of Olen, Belgium
The mayor of Olen believes the experts of the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control and Umicore when they say that there is no immediate danger for public health and the environment*. (Source: Belga)