The European ceramics industry is made up of several distinct sectors - manufacturing products for a wide range of uses, ranging from consumer durables to applications in the construction industry. The sub-sectors are wall & floor tiles, which accounted for just over 30% of the total value of 2011 output, bricks & roof tiles, table- and ornamental ware, refractories (heat resistant bricks and tiles used for lining kilns and furnaces), sanitary ware, technical ceramics, and the smallest sub sector, vitreous clay pipes.
Total output in 2011 (EU 27) is estimated at EUR 27.8 billion, just over 4% higher than the previous year. Production values dropped steeply after the crisis in 2008, and have recovered slowly since 2009. Production in 2011 was 21.5% below the 2007 high point. The industry employed 338 000 people in 2008 (EU 27).
The EU ceramics industry is a world leader in producing value added, uniquely designed high quality ceramic products manufactured by flexible and innovative companies, mainly SMEs. These companies are able to react quickly to changing market demand and new opportunities. The use of automation and environmental technologies are widespread and the existence of clusters fuels products and process innovation and enhanced competitiveness. Production technology is at a mature stage. Scope for further improving energy efficiency and reducing emissions is limited.
Innovations include the industry's specialisation in value added products, access to new markets appearing in emerging economies, its closeness to the market place and the ability to offer just-in-time and just-to-market service, increasing R&D in technical ceramics, smart materials, use of lasers, increased process automation, labelling and communications advantages - certification systems, origin marking, eco-labelling.
Challenges include the serious competition in mass volumes of low-cost products from emerging economies, especially tableware, high energy prices, reliance on virgin raw materials from third country producers, trade barriers either in the form of tariffs, testing and certification schemes, life style changes and substitution by other products, as well as attracting and keeping a skilled workforce.
Bricks, roof tiles and vitreous clay pipes, with high weight and low price, have local or regional markets, whereas tableware and wall & floor tiles are traded over long distance – around 30% of the output is exported outside the EU. The USA is the biggest export market, followed by Switzerland, Russia and Japan. The most important source of imports is China, with 70% of all imports, followed by the USA and Thailand.
Trade issues concern counterfeit imports and access to third markets. There are still peak import tariffs in third countries where EU ceramics manufacturers see potential for their products. In addition, there are many countries where the EU ceramics industry has difficulties in selling because of other types of barriers, mainly in the form of compulsory testing, conformity assessment, and certification schemes. Other barriers include special labelling requirements, or the obligation to clear customs in a specific port, which may be far from the main market.
The Community interest test regularly carried out in anti-dumping investigations ensures that the costs resulting from anti-dumping duties do not have an impact on the industry's competitiveness. Further concentrations of raw materials suppliers should be monitored closely, as more and more raw materials are imported into the EU. This is of vital importance for the refractories sub sector, where certain countries now control up to 90% of the raw materials for some products (magnesia, bauxite).
Ceramics production processes are energy intensive, although with differences in intensity between the various sub-sectors. The bricks & roof tiles sector being the biggest consumer accounting for around half of all energy consumed in the ceramics industry. The industry has every incentive to reduce its energy consumption, which it has halved over the last 25 years principally as a result of a switch in fuel usage.
The industry falls within the scope of several pieces of legislation, notably the Directives on emissions trading , Directive on industrial emissions 2010/75/EU (IED) , REACH, ceramic articles intended to come into contact with foodstuffs , and, to a lesser extent, on packaging and packaging waste . Another issue related to the environment, is dust which can arise from the handling or processing of raw materials or finishing. Gaseous emissions arise during the firing or spray drying of ceramics and may be derived from the raw materials and/or the fuels used. Among these emissions are carbon oxides, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, inorganic fluorine and chlorine compounds, as well as organic compounds. Heavy metals can also be emitted due to the use of substances used in the decoration or the use of heavy oil as fuel.
Some of the waste arising from the production process can be recycled back to the kiln, and that which cannot be recycled internally is sent for external recycling (e.g. road construction) or disposal (e.g. landfill). Some producers are beginning to bring in waste for recycling, but this is by no means common, as in, for example, the glass industry, and there is no standardised collection system. Waste water coming from the production process mainly contains mineral components (insoluble particulate matter, albeit not discharged). Depending on the production process, it can also contain other inorganic materials, small quantities of numerous organic materials as well as heavy metals
A major issue for ceramics is lead and cadmium used in decoration in the table- and ornamental ware sector. This is regulated by Commission Directive 2005/31/EC which introduces a requirement for a written declaration by the producer or importer that the goods placed on the market comply with the lead and cadmium release limits.