Need and Background

On a global basis, the annual extraction of materials tripled from 1970 to 2017 and it continues to grow. According to the European Raw Materials 2050 roadmap, securing reliable and sustainable access to Raw Materials (RM) and developing domestic value chains are crucial to boosting growth, jobs and competitiveness in Europe. Today the European Union (EU) is dependent on imports of many RM crucial for a strong industrial base.

The aggregates extractive industry provides materials for building and infrastructure industries and it is, by far, the biggest non-energy extractive industry in the EU, representing 75-80% of the EU mining and quarrying sector in terms of number of mines/quarries (26,000 sites) and companies (15,000 companies, 98.5% SMEs), and amount of materials supplied (>3 billion Tns/year). It also concentrates over 40% of the direct jobs (>220,000 jobs) and incomes (>20 billion €/year) of the global EU mining and quarrying sector (see detailed data in FIGURE).

These data show that the aggregates industry is vital for the EU economy. However, in order to keep this position in the long-term and to reduce the dependency on imports (main objectives of the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on RM), the challenges are multidisciplinary: The materials and their production processes need to be safe and secure, but also efficient and profitable, while having low environmental and social impacts, especially for quarries in urban areas. Thus, four groups of challenges have been identified.

Health & Safety (H&S) and Security

The aggregates industry operates with heavy mobile and fixed machinery in a changing outdoors environment. This leads to higher accident rates and more severe injuries, making the aggregates industry the most dangerous industrial sector: 1st sector with highest fatal incidence rate (6.8) and >65% of accidents have more than 1-month leave (highest sectorial rate)5. Furthermore, most of the workers are isolated from the others so it complicates the connection between workers, machines, sites, etc.

Efficiency, Selectivity and Profitability of quarrying operations

As mentioned above, 98.5% of quarries are SMEs. However, the remaining 1.5% corresponds to large companies employing ≥25% of workers. This heterogenous scenario forces a search for flexible solutions to answer the whole sector’s needs. Although the machinery involved in the aggregates quarrying sites is becoming more efficient and updated, technologies currently work as isolated islands with no connection among the different processes in the quarry. This is even more critical for multi-site quarries.

Environmental Impact

Operating quarries requires removing natural vegetation, topsoil and subsoil to reach the mineral deposits. Thus, ecosystems might be affected by: Noise and vibrations generated by the machinery; Pollution and decreased air quality such as dust, CO2, NOx, PM2.5, PM10 directly derived from the RM but also from the non-electric machinery; Disruption of the movement of surface water and groundwater and interruption of natural water recharge and can lead to reduced quantity and quality of drinking water for residents and wildlife near or downstream; Land use and waste generation (extractive and industrial waste).

Social Acceptance

Due to the long lifespan of quarries, even if they were initially isolated, the growth of cities is causing them to encroach on densely populated areas. Their proximity to neighborhoods leads to social conflicts, such as traffic, environmental concerns and loss of trust in the RM value chain. These challenges are closely interlinked, e.g.: dust from in-pit traffic and crushing signifies H&S hazard, production losses due to excessive fines during crushing, environmental impact, pollution and noise, leading to social tensions. Thus, one single action to reduce dust influences the 4 main challenges H&S, profitability, environment and social.