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Greening the European aggregate industry



A core industry sets its sights on a sustainable future, tackling biodiversity, air and water pollution, and climate change as the European Aggregates Association (UEPG) explains.

Aggregates are the sand, gravel and crushed rock that form the basis of building materials. Take them away and the built environment would literally fall apart. It takes up to 400 tonnes of aggregate to build a house, 30 000 tonnes to build a kilometre of road and 300 000 tonnes for a sports stadium. Two-thirds of aggregates serve building construction, with the remainder split between transport and other infrastructure. The European aggregates industry produces 3 billion tonnes a year with a turnover of €20 billion. It is by far the largest of the non-energy extractive industries.

The vast majority of aggregates come from quarrying – the remainder is either recycled, manufactured or from the sea. This has major consequences for the industry’s impact as the industry leaves a large stamp on the natural environment.

In November 2008, the European Commission unveiled plans for the future of raw materials in Europe. The Raw Materials Initiative warned that the area available for material extraction is being steadily squeezed out by other land uses.

The primary collision target is the Natura 2000 network of 26 000 protected areas covering more than 850 000 km2 – 18% of the EU. Quarries are spread far and wide because transport costs dominate the cost of aggregates. All too often a prospective site ends up in a protected area and difficult decisions must be made.

Planning helps

In October 2010, the Commission issued a guidance document to minimise land conflicts and, when they arise, clarify the procedure to resolve them. Better spatial planning is a key first step.

So-called mineral plans, especially when they are integrated into spatial land-use plans, can help industry and authorities prepare for long-term, sustainable extraction. The plans analyse potential conflicts with other land uses, including protected areas, forests and groundwater protection zones. They recommend areas that are suitable for extraction and discourage others.

Only a few countries are using these plans so far, including France and parts of Germany, but others may still set conditions for extraction. In the UK, mining proposals are considered within the framework of regional and local spatial plans, which are always subject to an environmental impact assessment.

Biodiversity is a top priority for the aggregate industry, according to the UEPG. In 2007, UEPG partnered with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In 2009, it launched an online database of over 120 best-practice biodiversity case studies. In April 2010, it became the first industry association to join the Commission’s Business and Biodiversity Platform.

A UEPG biodiversity task force is currently working on quantitative and qualitative targets for the European aggregates industry.

Best-practice innovations include the biodiversity management plans Heidelberg Cement in Germany is devising for its 150 extraction sites related to Natura 2000 areas. Another German company is advising its quarry operators to remove material in a way that leaves 2m-deep niches rather than smooth surfaces to provide nesting holes for the endangered eagle owl.

Quarrying can actively contribute to nature protection by creating new habitats for wildlife, such as wetlands, that can be important stepping stones between protected areas.

Minimising damage

Water, dust, noise and transport-related emissions must be minimised if a quarry is to keep its environmental footprint small. Careful planning and monitoring are key; software innovations are making these early steps easier and easier.

The EU Water Framework and Groundwater Protection Directives aim to preserve the quality of fresh water. New concretes are being developed that allow crushed rock aggregates to replace natural sand and gravel since deposits of the latter are more often tied to groundwater.

On-site innovations include the installation of a water-treatment plant at the McGraths Cregaree Quarry in Ireland to ensure high quality discharged ground water. This helped it win the UEPG’s environmental best-practice award in 2010 for outstanding innovation.

A company in the Slovak Republic nominated for the same prize plans to build an automatic time-controlled misting system to reduce dust levels, which are regulated by EU air quality laws. The UK environment ministry estimated that, in 2005, quarries were responsible for a fifth of the country’s particulate matter emissions.

Quarry noise is typically reduced through barriers, mufflers and strips of vegetation. Green belts can absorb noise, and more and more quarries are trying them out.

Aggregate is not transported far but the vast bulk – nearly 90% – travels by road with average emissions of 160 g of CO2/tonne/km, four times more than the 41 g of CO2 /tonne/km for rail. Eco-driving lessons are being used to tackle this problem, and some companies are switching part of their transport to rail.

Lorry logistics will be increasingly optimised as Member States are given powers to charge for environmental damage under the revised Eurovignette Directive on road pricing.

Looking ahead

Efficiency and innovation will shape the sustainable future of the aggregates industry. Recycled aggregate only accounted for 216 million tonnes in 2008, but this sector is growing. Emerging end-of-waste criteria will help cement the acceptability of these products.

Marine aggregates are being promoted as alternatives to land-based ones, although there are environmental conflicts with marine-conservation efforts. Quarry by-products are being put to good use in products from compost to green roofs.

Innovation is supported by a variety of funding sources including the Commission’s Life+ programme, taxes on aggregates such as the sustainability levy in the UK and venture capital.

Demand for aggregates will reach four billion tonnes, the industry says. As long as this is paired with a respect for environmental laws, both the built and natural environment will emerge as winners.

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