Growing our business with Zero Harm to biodiversity
Biodiversity is a component of nature and the environment, where a rich diversity of natural life can be found in a particular ecosystem, biome, or the entire planet. Our Let’s Go for Zero sustainability ambitions include bold targets relating to the impact our operations have on the environment and society, with a pillar devoted to ‘Zero Harm’. As well as ensuring the wellbeing and safety of our people, Zero Harm is focused on caring for our neighbors and the biodiversity that exists in and around our sites. Understanding our connection to biodiversity and managing our impacts are important for the long-term sustainability of the planet and society because biodiversity provides numerous benefits to human wellbeing, including ecosystem services such as air and water purification, nutrient cycling, pollination, and climate regulation.
In early 2022, we began a process to bring Zero Harm to biodiversity into the heart of our business, by starting our first-ever global biodiversity impact analysis. This ambitious initiative sets out to assess our sites for potential biodiversity risks, identify opportunities where we can have a positive impact on nature and establish a framework on which we can build a comprehensive biodiversity action plan for the future.
Assessment of biodiversity value, site by site
With over 46 operational sites around the world, this assessment is a major undertaking. For expert support, we joined forces with the international consultancy Arcadis to perform the study, which began by focusing on the biodiversity impact of our operations where we have direct control – Scope 1. The aim is to build a comprehensive "on the ground" picture of biodiversity at each location, identifying and ranking the sites that have the most nearby biodiversity value, those where our operations pose the greatest environmental risks, and the opportunities we see for positive biodiversity improvements, for example by improving soil or water quality.
To perform the screening, Arcadis used the respected biodiversity data tool, IBAT (Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool by the International Union for Conservation of Nature), which provides constantly updated data on threatened species, protected areas and key biodiversity areas across the globe. Using IBAT to assess the vulnerability of the areas in which we operate, we studied the biodiversity risks and opportunities at different sites, looking into key environmental pressures, such as the use and discharge of water, emissions of sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), and the disposal of waste.
Recognizing the importance and long-term environmental value of this crucial biodiversity work, our local teams were fully engaged in the process. Site managers joined the team effort, providing additional data when available – such as recent environmental impact studies. All this information allowed us to develop a full picture of the biodiversity values and environmental pressures at each site and its surrounding area. We then used the data to assign a biodiversity impact score to each site, thereby prioritizing sites for biodiversity risks. For the most critical sites, we began an in-depth analysis of further research to help us identify concrete steps for improvement.
Learnings and next steps
Now that this first stage of high-level analysis and ranking of sites is completed, the next step is to develop a centralized monitoring system that will help us implement a future biodiversity action plan across the business. With the insights gained so far, we have already learned a lot. One conclusion is that some of our largest and longest-established sites, such as Hoboken and Olen in Belgium, are in areas of relatively vulnerable biodiversity. Although our focus is on reducing environmental risks, the analysis will also unlock new opportunities to make a positive difference to nature, by improving natural habitats for species at our sites. The study will also help us to plan for new development, ensuring that assessments of biodiversity value and risk become part and parcel of how we choose land for future expansion. By taking this fully nature-based approach, we will make the best choices for biodiversity as we grow our business.
Although we are still in the early stages of our biodiversity journey, we already have good examples of success at some of our sites in Europe.
Protecting wildlife at Hoboken
Our Hoboken plant in Belgium, located close to the River Scheldt, is one of the world’s largest precious metals refining plants. Over the years, Umicore has made significant environmental improvements at the site and continues to invest €25 million each year to further improve its environmental performance. During 2022, these actions were extended to protect wildlife populations whose habitats have been identified at or near the site.
An example is recent work to protect one of nature’s rarest species of toad, the Natterjack. These elusive small toads, with their distinctive and loud call, were discovered at the Hoboken site in 2022. With a preference for shallow pools of water and sandy ground, the Natterjacks had found a suitable habitat in a section of the Hoboken site, but obstacles on the ground prevented them from establishing a sustainable population. Working with local nature experts and according to government guidelines, Umicore’s in-house biologists have optimized the ground conditions for the toads to re-populate, including new water pools and groundworks. An evaluation of the population will be made to see if the work encourages more Natterjacks to make their home in Hoboken.
Meanwhile, Umicore’s nature experts are also working at Hoboken to protect a local population of bats nesting in an adjacent historic fort. To search for food near the river Scheldt, the bats use trees to guide their way. However, the route traverses the Hoboken site, making it harder for the bats to reach their feeding areas. Umicore is in the process of building a 5-hectare green zone around the Hoboken site, in addition to the existing green buffer zone within the site boundaries. Once completed, the green zone could support the foraging routes of the bats.
Nature-inclusive growth at Kokkola
Our plant in Kokkola, on the west coast of Finland, is a key site in our growing Rechargeable Battery Materials (RBM) business. It is where Umicore produces state-of-the-art precursor cathode active materials and is Europe’s largest cobalt refinery.
As the growth of RBM plays a key role in Umicore’s 2030 RISE strategy, in which we aim to capture profitable growth while creating sustainable value, it is essential that our growth goes hand in hand with minimizing impact on biodiversity.
Located close to areas of high environmental value – such as the Bay of Bothnia and nearby forests and dunes – the biodiversity risks from the Kokkola plant are relatively high compared to other facilities in our group. Historically, the impact of industry on nearby forests and marine life was a concern in Kokkola, but collaborative effort among companies in the Kokkola industrial park, working in co-operation with the City of Kokkola, has ensured a healthier balance between industry and nature for decades.
To contribute to this long-standing partnership to protect local biodiversity, Umicore works closely with other companies and city authorities, as part of the Ostrobothian environmental coordination organization (Yhdistys – pvy). This focuses on environmental risk monitoring in the area, including measuring air, water and noise quality and studying key bio-indicators such as the health of fish species and benthic organisms living in the coastal waters around the industrial park. Much of this monitoring work, including close analysis of sea water quality, has been ongoing for many decades. Together, the industrial park members, municipal partners and other stakeholders share best practices and action plans.
This collaborative community work is an inspiration as we seek to embed biodiversity impact assessment into our growth plans. We want to make sure we understand the biodiversity value surrounding our facilities, so that we know upfront any potential risks associated with our expansion ambitions.
Umicore is also performing its own environmental protection measures at Kokkola. For example, we have significantly improved our water use efficiency, now using 500 less liters of water to refine 1kg of cobalt compared to the year 2000. We are also investing in new wastewater treatment systems and new scrubbers for the production line, to further minimize impacts from water discharge. In addition, our team in Kokkola is helping to maintain healthy fish populations in the bay, through a collaboration with local fishermen. Umicore is funding a program in which the fishing crews release spawning fish when they are working at sea.
Protecting bird life and natural habitats in Olen
Our site in Olen, 43 km east of Antwerp, is involved in several initiatives to protect biodiversity in and around the site. For example, we worked with the nature organization Natuurpunt to assess birdlife on the site and identified a nesting population of Northern House Martins. Protecting these birds goes hand in hand with other environmental work at Olen. These include an initiative to restore the resilience of a nature reserve in the vicinity, especially in relation to groundwater. To this end, the Olen plant is in a working group on the resilience of the Olens Broek, together with the Province of Antwerp, the Public Flemish Waste Agency (OVAM) and the Flemish Environmental Society (VMM). In addition, Olen has given about 60 hectares of land, including parcels of meadows and forest, in concession to the Nature and Forest Agency of Flanders (ANB) and Kempens Landschap.
These examples are just a first snapshot of the biodiversity work that Umicore is now embedding into our everyday business, ensuring that we not only protect the natural life which share our sites, but that we also make a positive difference by creating new opportunities for nature to thrive.