Hoboken - Living together sustainably
In the Belgian town of Hoboken, the circular economy is in full swing. In more than 130 years the site of Umicore has grown into one of the world's largest and most sophisticated refineries and recyclers of metals. Just think of gold in cell phones, palladium in car catalytic converters, or cobalt for electric vehicle batteries.
Each year this exceptional "urban mine" processes several hundred thousand tons of materials. Through its unique, high-tech and sustainable processes, Umicore extracts more than 20 different metals, precious metals and many others. Instead of ending up in a landfill, being processed under hazardous circumstances or having to extract more raw materials from mines, they are reprocessed into their purest form.
All these metals are endlessly recyclable for new use. They are converted into high-tech materials that are indispensable in countless everyday applications and in sustainable mobility. Umicore's services are a response to the growing global problem of raw material scarcity.
The Hoboken site is also exceptional in its location, with origins dating back to 1887 as a desalination plant with a favorable location along the river Scheldt. Over time, a residential area was built next to the site -- and it is still adjacent to it today.
This proximity has created the necessary challenges.
Lead is one of the metals that allow complex materials to be processed.
Lead and its impact
For a long time, there was a lack of awareness of the impact of the industry and possible adverse health effects on the local community. This changed in the late 1970s when a blood test showed that residents living nearby the plant showed very elevated levels of lead in their blood, especially in young children and those living closest to the plant.
A series of measures were taken to minimize the impact of the industry on the living environment and to prevent negative consequences. The government proceeded to monitor the lead in the blood of the children around the site twice a year on a voluntary basis. Later, the Flemish environmental authorities began to measure and report the air quality at Hoboken. After an overall remediation program at the site, which included the introduction of new technologies and better hygiene measures, the situation improved dramatically. Today the site is one of the most advanced in emission control in the world.
A visionary, strategic and sustainable approach
In the 1990s, the company changed its strategic course and decided to process more and more recycled materials.
As Umicore, it made a visionary new start with a closed-loop businessmodel in 2001. Since then, Umicore has been focusing its activities on clean mobility and the recycling of materials. At the time, this decision was taken well ahead of the breakthrough of the electric car, the explosive demand for electronics and the associated scarcity of raw materials.
The Hoboken site itself was also transformed. Umicore took responsibility for the historical pollution of the plant. Between 2006 and 2008 Umicore, in collaboration with the authorities, carried out a comprehensive remediation program both on and around the site. This involved rearranging part of the site, bringing in innovative and sustainable technologies and improving hygiene measures. This comprehensive program was completed in 2008 with the cleaning of the soil and the houses around the site.
Governments further tightened emission standards and the site's committed efforts continued unabated, to ensure that the local community and industry can coexist in a sustainable manner.
Lead-in-Blood Values - A Declining Trend
These site efforts paid off. Emissions dropped well below the norm and lead-in blood levels reached a record low in 2019 at 2.9 µg/dl. In June 2022, the average test result was 3.03 micrograms per deciliter of blood (µg/dl), comparable to 2.91 µg/dl in October and below both the new local standard and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) globally adopted reference value of 3.5µg/dl.
Those results were close to the lowest values ever recorded, after an unexpected increase in average values in the summer of 2020. The plant's emissions were below the legal standard and gave no immediate cause for the sudden increase. Analyses pointed to extreme weather conditions of prolonged drought and high wind speeds, along with the COVID-19 lockdown that kept children at home. Umicore put in a lot of extra work to return to the positive trend of the previous years. In addition to more intensive and extensive cleaning and overhauls of filtering systems, Umicore developed a method that factors in the changing climate: a wind barometer helps determine whether the movements of raw materials can take place, should be limited, or even postponed to avoid dust drift. Storage areas are covered and additional monitoring systems are being used to more quickly detect possible sources of dust or the effects of weather conditions.
Subsequent blood test results, from October 2020 to the final test in 2022, have again shown clear improvement. Furthermore, additional soil testing by the OVAM showed that there was no connection between the increased dust fallout of 2020 and any possible new soil contamination.
Umicore fully supports and co-finances an extensive human biomonitoring study among youth aged 14-15, living within a 3 km radius of its Hoboken site. This will provide a broader range of scientifically substantiated data and insights as to the effects of both Umicore's operations and traffic in the area, on nearby residents' health. The results will allow for Umicore to take further, targeted improvement measures.
The green zone - A long-term sustainable solution
Umicore has taken numerous actions and initiatives over the years to reduce dust emissions. Another example is the initiative to create a green zone next to the company by buying the houses next to the site, thereby increasing the distance between the site and the neighbors. This idea was first discussed about fifty years ago, but support was lacking at the time. The results of the blood tests in the summer of 2020 showed that an additional initiative was needed to optimally protect the children of the neighborhood and ensure that children cannot live so close to the plant. The house sale is on a voluntary basis; those wishing to move will be offered a proposal by an independent estimator. Construction of the five-hectare green zone is expected to begin in 2024. In the meantime, further greening has also taken place on the site itself, with the planting of one hectare on the side of the neighborhood. In addition, in the interests of safety, the public road that runs through the site will be closed and diverted. Umicore will continue its efforts to ensure that the local community and industry can co-exist.