European chemicals group Solvay declares truce with activist Bluebell

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Solvay and activist investor Bluebell Capital have declared an end to a long-running battle over waste dumped in the Mediterranean after the European chemicals group pledged to drastically reduce limestone tailings from a flagship carbonate plant. soda on the Italian Tuscan coast.

Solvay also revealed that it had made a breakthrough in soda ash technology that could eliminate limestone waste, while reducing the division’s carbon emissions by 50%.

Bluebell co-founder Giuseppe Bivona said the news was proof of what financial investors could achieve if they pressured management for greater commitment to environmental and social improvements.

“It’s a great result in the best interests of shareholders because I’m convinced that if a business isn’t sustainable it will fail at some point,” he said. Bluebell ran its campaign after buying a single Solvay share.

Ilham Kadri, chief executive of Solvay, told the Financial Times in an interview that the company was working on waste disposal technology long before Bluebell became a shareholder.

After making the breakthrough, which would electrify the soda ash process, the company had been able to share its plans with Bluebell and now more publicly. “We were ready because the science was ready, not me,” she said.

Solvay and Bluebell have been waging a public battle for nearly two years over the environmental impact of the group’s plant in Rosignano, a Tuscan tourist destination famous for its white sand beaches.

However, the beaches owe their color to calcareous silt, which is a byproduct of soda ash that contains mercury, lead, and other metals. Sodium carbonate, which accounts for 15% of Solvay’s annual sales, is a key element in the glass manufacturing process.

Solvay has come under public attack from environmental activists, as well as Bluebell, for dumping this untreated limestone waste into the sea.

It insists the discharge contains only non-harmful levels of metals and complies with regulatory and environmental requirements, although the renewal of its operating permit in January was controversial as environmental activists disputed the claims.

But on Tuesday, Kadri said the group had discovered “the holy grail” of soda processing that would result in “zero rejection”.

A pilot line to test the process would be launched in France. If successful, the technology would be rolled out across Solvay’s soda ash production as part of the division’s net zero carbon commitment of €1 billion by 2050.

Kadri said the technology has been in development for about 30 years, but a breakthrough was achieved by Solvay researchers this year. The first patent had been approved and more were to come.

The new process would not only reduce emissions and waste, but result in substantial capital expenditure savings, she said. However, the implementation of the new process in the whole soda industry could take 30 years.

“It’s about environmental sustainability,” Kadri said. “It is more efficient and will help our competitiveness because this new process will work with lower capital expenditure. The industrial pilot will tell us how we will manage the process with less money.

In the meantime, 15 million euros would be invested in Rosignano to help reduce waste and emissions. Solvay has committed to reducing limestone waste by 20% below authorized levels by 2030 and by 40% by 2040. The group has committed to making its soda ash mining neutral in carbon by 2050.

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