Aggregates are inert granular materials such as sand, gravel or crushed rock that are an endproduct in their own right. They are also the raw materials that are an essential ingredient in concrete. For a good concrete mix, aggregates need to be clean, hard, strong particles free of absorbed chemicals or coatings of clay and other fine materials that could cause the deterioration of concrete.

Aggregates typically comprise the largest proportion of concrete, often exceeding 80 per cent by mass. The UK has an abundance of local, naturally-occurring aggregate resources. Mineral extraction is tightly regulated, and once extraction has ended sites will be restored. The process of restoration can deliver biodiversity gain, through the creation of rare or valuable new habitats. Read more

Inherently low in carbon, natural aggregates require little processing and are usually available in close proximity to sites of concrete manufacture. Where aggregates are unique to a specific region’s geology, travel distances may increase to facilitate national supply. For longer distances, the industry uses the UK’s low carbon transport modes of rail and waterways. The average road delivery distances for aggregates is 30 miles (ref MPA Sustainability Report).

Total aggregate use in Great Britain is relatively low in comparison with other countries. Annual per capita use of aggregates in GB is approximately
20% below the European average (ref MPA Sustainability Report).

Coarse aggregates

Coarse aggregates are particles greater than 4.75mm, but generally range between 9.5mm to 37.5mm in diameter. They can either be from Primary, Secondary or Recycled sources. Primary, or 'virgin', aggregates are either Land- or Marine-Won. Gravel is a coarse marine-won aggregate; land-won coarse aggregates include gravel and crushed rock. Gravels constitute the majority of coarse aggregate used in concrete with crushed rock making up most of the remainder.

Secondary aggregates are materials which are the by-products of extractive operations and are derived from a very wide range of materials.

Recycled concrete is a viable source of aggregate and has been satisfactorily used in granular subbases, soil-cement, and in new concrete. Recycled aggregates are classified in one of two ways, as:

  1. Recycled Aggregate (RA), or as
  2. Recycled Concrete Aggregate (RCA).

Fine aggregates

Fine aggregate are basically sands won from the land or the marine environment. Fine aggregates generally consist of natural sand or crushed stone with most particles passing through a 9.5mm sieve. As with coarse aggregates these can be from Primary, Secondary or Recycled sources.

Lightweight aggregates

Lightweight aggregates are manufactured from natural materials or from the manufacture or processing of industrial by-products. The required properties of the lightweight concrete will have a bearing on the best type of lightweight aggregate to use.

Sustainability credentials

CO2 On site CO2 emissions from aggregates supply are 4 - 6 kg per tonne. 15 per cent of UK aggregates are transported by rail and ship/barge. The average road delivery distances is 38 kilometres.
Recycling With a growing commitment to recycling construction waste materials, there is now little evidence that any hard demolition and construction waste is sent to landfill (ii). Recycled and secondary aggregates account for 20 per cent of the total market: this is the highest for all countries in Europe.
Biodiversity Seven hundred sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) in the UK are current and previous sites of mineral extraction. The aggregates sector is actively involved in site stewardship and biodiversity initiatives, including encouraging exemplar restoration projects.
Resource Depletion Aggregates are abundant the world over. The UK has enough aggregate reserves to last for hundreds of thousands of years at current rates of usage (i).
Health and Safety With improving working practices, year on year aggregate extraction is becoming an increasingly safe industry. MPA is seeking to achieve a 2014 target of a 50 per cent reduction in lost time incidents (LTI) for direct employers and contractors, with an overarching aim of 'Zero Harm'.

Source: Concrete Credentials: Sustainability, MPA - The Concrete Centre, 2010

Further information

For more information on aggregates and concrete, download the publication 'Specifying Sustainable Concrete' from The Concrete Centre website.