Zinc is everywhere. In our bodies, our food, medicine, make-up, steel structures, cars, mobile phones, zippers and doorknobs. Nyrstar in Budel-Dorplein is a major producer. The company is one of the 3 best in the world. But zinc production has been stopped for some time. Reason: the high energy costs. “We run almost exclusively on electricity, it is a raw material for us in the zinc electrolysis process,” says general manager Henk Leendertse of Nyrstar Budel.
Nyrstar’s ore hall is quiet. Normally the trains come in with raw materials from the port of Antwerp. The raw materials are extracted from mines in North America and Australia. Another important source is ‘urban mining’. More and more raw materials come from recycled material. For example, zinc construction products are recovered from the demolition of an old office building, which can be remelted.
“This is a significant part of our production”, says Henk Leendertse. “Over the past decades, we have seen an increase in the amount of zinc available from recycling, which may lead to a decrease in zinc from mines over time.”
“The employees love this company and want to make zinc.”
A large conveyor belt runs up from the ore hall. The raw materials are there on their way to the first stage of the production process: ‘roasting’. But the band is silent. And the installation is silent. “Normally you would hear the hum here. It’s very strange how quiet it is,” says Leendertse. “You don’t want this. Nor the employees. They love the company and want to make zinc.” The 475 employees are now engaged in training, maintenance and cleaning work.
Nyrstar has run entirely on electricity since 1973, so there are almost no CO2 emissions. However, there are high-voltage pylons along a stretch of ten kilometers, specially constructed for the company. It was a huge investment back then. “We are a forerunner in this,” says Leendertse. “Everything is green electricity. And yet we lie still. While we are doing so well. The Netherlands now imports zinc from parts of the world where there are much more CO2 emissions.”
“We will survive this too, just 130 more years”
The company recently celebrated its 130th anniversary. 1,300 people came to an open day. Nyrstar is the pride of Budel-Dorplein. The village is named after the founders of Nyrstar Budel, the Dor brothers. “A lot of people told us, we’ll survive this too, just 130 more years,” says Leendertse.
The company has no idea when it can start up again, even though the price of gas and electricity is currently falling. Behind the scenes, talks are being held with the government. Goal: equal conditions in Europe. Other countries are more welcoming to companies that use a lot of energy than the Netherlands.
“Batteries, wind turbines and solar panels: it cannot do without zinc.”
Nevertheless, Nyrstar continues to look far into the future, it has confidence in it. Demand for zinc will only increase, the company believes. Zinc is needed for the green transition and Nyrstar would like to play a role in that. “Batteries, wind turbines, solar panels: it cannot do without zinc,” says Leendertse. “This company is transforming itself to fit into the green transition.”
It was different in Nyrstar’s early days. The thermal factory located there at the time caused significant environmental damage. The zinc waste had to be cleaned up throughout the region. Such pollution has long since ceased to exist. Nyrstar cleans its own groundwater and recycles the residual material in the production process.
“It will be nice when silence gives way to activity again.”
Most of the energy goes into the electrolysis hall. Aluminum sheets are suspended in a bath of zinc sulfate solution, electricity is passed through it, and the zinc is deposited on the sheets. The gauges are very good there. Nyrstar uses as much electricity as the city of Eindhoven. The result is a large electricity bill.
But the company cannot wait for the moment when it is financially possible to restart the process. A process that will then take a few weeks. Leendertse: “It will be nice if the silence gives way to activity again, and the machines can run at full speed again.”