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ECMP ’02 – Time To Act

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Conference calls for a unified European minerals strategy

Mineral extraction is one of the major economic factors in many countries of Europe, but with increasing cross-border interaction and sustainable development high on the political agenda, the shaping and implementation of a common European minerals policy is becoming increasingly overdue. This was the key message to emerge from ECMP ’02, the third European conference on mineral planning, which took place in Krefeld, Germany, during 8–10 October.

Aptly located in the heart of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s leading mineral producing state, the conference focused largely on the issue of ‘sustainability’ in relation to raw materials planning, with some 35 papers and subsequent discussion sessions exploring the ‘changing conditions’ and ‘new perspectives’ in four main subject areas: regional and national planning; ecological and social aspects; sustainability and substitution; and governmental instruments of regulation.

Notwithstanding the fact that minerals are finite, non-renewable resources that can only be extracted where nature has placed them, the conference acknowledged that mineral extraction and processing can have a negative impact on the environment and may lead to conflict with local residents. However, by providing a forum to stimulate and initiate open dialogue aimed at long-term reconciliation of these issues, the conference was able to identify and bring to the fore some of the major considerations in this regard.

Foremost among these was the growing awareness that the countries of Europe share common problems in balancing their socio-economic requirements for minerals against the need to protect the natural environment from unnecessary adverse impacts. These problems are currently being compounded by a general lack of awareness on the part of the people of Europe regarding the importance of minerals to their everyday lives, to society and to their national economies.

Secondly, the conference highlighted the increasing calls being made on the policy-makers, regulatory authorities and on the minerals industry for more transparency and accountability of their respective activities, and for more public participation in the process of regulating these activities.

Thirdly, the wide range of papers presented clearly brought into focus the variations between different European countries in the definitions of materials and sustainable development, in the knowledge of deposits and qualities of minerals, and in the policies and procedures for the control of mineral extraction and processing through land-use planning and environmental regulation. These variations are seen as being contrary to the objectives of removing barriers to competition and harmonizing environmental standards at the level of best practice within the countries of the European Union.

Fourthly, the conference noted the increasing interdependence of EU countries in the supply and use of minerals, a situation based on the free movement of materials across borders but potentially contrary to the environmental principle of balancing the benefits of utilizing local or regional sources of supply against the possible benefits of using more remote sources.

Lastly, the conference acknowledged that the essential requirements of sustainability mean that the long-term demand for minerals and the potential future impacts of this demand on future generations add to the case for increasing the use of alternative and recycled materials, and require the prudent use of all mineral resources, through gradual reduction in the use of primary materials and through technical advances which increase the efficiency of use.

Speaking at the conference, Hans Dieter Hilden, chairman of the ECMP international organizing committee, said it was a matter of concern that, after the two previous successful ECMP meetings in The Netherlands in 1997 and England in 1999, there was still no agreement on a sustainable European minerals policy. ‘There may be good practices in individual countries,’ he said, ‘but there is now a case to set common standards across Europe.’

Accordingly, the conference resolved to call on the European Commission, whether as part of the 6th EU Environmental Action Programme, which outlines the European Union’s environmental objectives and activities for the next decade, or in separate action, to explore the possibility of developing a unified framework for identifying mineral resources, securing their supply and regulating their extraction and processing, on the basis of common definitions and standards.

Such a framework would be expected to draw upon best practice and existing research in EU member states to achieve a sustainable balance between the needs of social progress, economic development and environmental protection, while conforming to the principle of maximizing national and regional subsidiarity.

In parallel with this, member states will be encouraged, through appropriate actions at EU level, to undertake relevant research into resources and environmental implications, and thereby to establish a common understanding of the need for minerals and the implications of meeting that need in terms of extraction and transportation; and to develop policies and practices for mineral resource planning and the regulation of mineral exploitation for the protection of landscapes, the natural environment and biodiversity.

Member states will also be encouraged to develop programmes of public education and information about the social and economic need for minerals and their extraction, transportation, processing and use, explaining how these vital activities can be carried out with minimum impact on the environment.

Summing up the conference, Mr Hilden said ECMP ’02 had provided a real opportunity to move discussions beyond the usual, though nevertheless valuable, cross-border exchange of ideas and experiences, to initiate a process that could lead to a responsible, modern, European-wide strategy for sustainable minerals extraction.

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