The Construction minerals sub-sector is the largest sector in term of the tonnages of minerals extracted, and the number of companies and employees. It also has the highest turnover and value added. Typical construction minerals are aggregates (sand, gravel, and crushed natural stone), various brick clays, gypsum and natural ornamental or dimension stone. Eurostat records data under NACE codes CB14.1 and CB14.21.
Their demand is generally high (Europe produces an estimated 3 billion tons yearly) while they typically have a relatively low cost per tonne, requiring a tight network of pits and quarries in order to reduce transport distances and thus limit the costs (and associated environmental impact) of transport. The sector consists mainly of SMEs operating over 20.000 extraction sites, generally supplying local and regional markets.
Competiveness and trade
Demand for aggregates, gypsum and dimension stone is closely related to the level of new house-building, maintenance and repair of existing buildings and the scale and extend of civil engineering projects. During periods of weak economic growth, repair and maintenance (renovation) of the existing building stock is thought to dominate demand, although this also depends on the extent of the existing building stock and the number of national and local urban renewal programmes. The construction sector is receiving special attention as one of the major sectors heavily affected by the financial and economic crisis in 2008/2009.
Typical costs for an aggregates quarry can vary from around €2 million for a small quarry with an output of 0.25-0.5 million tonnes per year to between €7 million and €25 million for a large quarry producing more than 1 million tonnes per year. A super quarry, generally producing for several countries, can cost well in excess of €45 million.
Europe is self sufficient regarding its aggregate production, and there is only limited international trade, with the exception of Belgium and the Netherlands. In general there is a good correlation between aggregate consumption and population.
EU mine production of gypsum has generally increased since the early 1990s and totalled around 25 million tonnes in 2004. Spain is by far the biggest producer of mined gypsum (over 10 million tonnes a year) and, with France and Germany, accounts for two thirds of EU production. The EU is the largest producer of mined gypsum in the world, accounting for about 25% of the global total.
Approximately 35% of global natural stone production is in Europe, of which over 80% is in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal. The sector has been facing increasing competition in recent years from countries such as China, India and Brazil. One of the strengths of the natural stone sector within the EU is the very large number of old historic buildings requiring renovation; estimates of the number of stone monuments, buildings and pavements being considered for restoration range from 12 to 18 times the present annual consumption of stone within the EU.
A relatively small but increasing amount of aggregate is produced from by-products of other industrial processes, such as blast and electric furnace slags or residues from mineral processing such as china clay sands and left-overs from stone quarrying ("secondary aggregates") and from reprocessing of materials previously used in construction, including construction and demolition waste and railway ballast ("recycled aggregates").
In 2004 over 5% of the aggregates used in the EU were recycled, although the relative contribution varied greatly between Member States. At the low end, some countries report that they use no secondary or recycled aggregates, while others report that over 20% of their national consumption is met from such sources due to specific targeted national policies.
Also in the case of gypsum, alternative sources, and in particular synthetic gypsum produced at coal-fired power stations as a by-product of flue gas desulphurisation (FGD), are increasingly being used.
Extraction of construction minerals unavoidably has an impact on land use, even if, following land rehabilitation, this is temporary. In surface mineral working this is usually visible by the hole created by the removal of soil, overburden and the mineral; storage mounds containing soil and overburden; spoil tips and lagoons (also known as dumps and tailings ponds), together with associated plant (e.g. crushers and conveyor belts), buildings and access roads.
Modern working methods, including progressive extraction and rehabilitation (including new concepts like "function combination"), strive to minimise the area of land being worked at any one time (i.e. the industry's surface "footprint"), while careful landscaping operations (e.g. using trees or bunds) can limit the visibility of sites.
Besides land management issues, the industry is likely to have a certain environmental impact (e.g. changes in groundwater flow patterns, loss of biodiversity, dust and noise). Managing these impacts effectively requires that activities are in line with all relevant legislation that covers these areas.
However, industry has made large strides recently to improve its environmental performance, and there is general acceptance within the companies active in this sector that they have to reconcile their activities with sustainable development and environmental concerns.
As an example, the European Aggregates Association UEPG has joined the Countdown 2010 Initiative of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to contribute to halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010.
There are several examples of individual companies that have embarked on joint projects with environmental organisations. The International Council of Mining and Metals has also produced guidelines for the mining industry to incorporate biodiversity considerations into corporate strategies and practices.
As the industry and representatives of some Member State identified the Habitats Directive and its requirement to designate areas of land as sites of Community importance and form a network of protected areas (Natura 2000) as having the greatest potential effect on the industry, the Commission is currently finalising guidelines on how to reconcile extractive activities with a high level of environmental protection.