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Exploring Sustainable Natural Stone Quarrying Practices

by | Jun 28, 2024 |

Natural stone’s inherent attributes make it a great solution for many green building project goals. It is a durable, aesthetically pleasing, sustainable material used for indoor and outdoor applications. When selecting natural stone for any project, it is important to know how the stone was quarried and fabricated to understand the impacts on the environment, including the land.  Responsible stone quarrying and production practices are well defined, and third party verified, through the Natural Stone Sustainability Standard, Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs), and product labels such as Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). Because the metrics and impacts are quantified in these product labels and the Standard, it has raised awareness and spawned efficiencies and innovations at every step of the process. It also makes it easier to compare materials before selecting the most appropriate one for a project. Understanding this information will ultimately help you make better decisions and select a natural stone from a company that is working to continuously reduce their environmental impacts. 

Adhering to Ethical and Environmental Quarrying and Fabricating Practices 

The Natural Stone Sustainability Standard, developed through a holistic ANSI Standard process, measures and evaluates Environmental, Ecological, Social Responsibility, and Human Health issues and impacts. Specific issues addressed include energy, water, site management, excess process materials, and land reclamation and adaptive reuse of a quarry upon closure. Many quarries, often in operation over centuries, can produce millions of square feet of material while still adhering to the ethical and environmentally conscious practices required of them. In fact, many quarries were implementing sustainable practices long before they were defined in product labels and the Standard. But now, these labels and the Standard help to quantify those activities and impacts, which has also led to more innovation and improvement within the natural stone industry’s quarrying, fabrication, and transportation activities.  

The Water category of the Standard requires that minimal fresh water be used in the processing of the material and ensuring that any water released back into the environment is safe. Quarries are required to have plans for Water Reduction, Recycled Water, and Enhanced Water Treatment. Optional points can be achieved for recycling and reuse percentages, and enhanced sludge management. Most quarriers and fabricators already recycle their water and some use no water at all. The goal is to respect this natural resource and to use and manage it responsibly. 

This barracks on the West Point Academy campus used Charcoal Black granite for its long life cycle and ability to tie to West Point’s existing stone architecture.

The granite came from Coldspring’s Charcoal Quarry in St. Cloud, Minnesota, which has been in operation since the late 1950s and has a quarry reclamation plan in place that includes a small lake and park. Photos courtesy of Coldspring.

Implementing site-specific measurement plans ensures responsible management of environmental impacts in the Site Management category. Quarries are required to have a Site Management Plan and establish Ecosystem Boundaries. These plans include addressing storm water management, dust control, safety precautions, and proper storage of any chemicals in use. All relevant environmental considerations in the Ecosystem Boundaries which may include streams, rivers, riparian waterways, plants, and wildlife must be maintained and kept current during operations. 

There are many ways to address the Excess Process Materials category. Additional uses can be found for scraps and small pieces of stone that keep the material from ever entering a landfill. New markets and revenue streams for quarriers and the local economy have been created that include using scraps and remnants as rip rap, aggregates, sculpture, signage, small decorative objects, and more. The excess materials are also used onsite for roadways, safety barricades, and the eventual reclamation of the quarry site. 

The Land Reclamation & Adaptive Reuse category requires that a post-closure plan be developed and maintained. The quarry must also demonstrate that there is ongoing review and maintenance of each plan. When the local community is engaged in the process, the potential range of ideas for how the quarry can be reused expand exponentially, as you will see in the examples described below.  

Innovative and Inspiring Quarry Reclamation Projects

Upon closure of quarries, there are unlimited opportunities for them to be reclaimed, reused, or adapted to suit the needs of local communities and also have a positive impact on the environment. Quarries have been turned into everything from stadiums, hotels, data centers, and amphitheaters, to parks, botanical gardens, golf courses, and more. Talented and creative companies and communities who are committed to making a difference, while also celebrating the heritage of quarries, made these projects possible. 

Braga Stadium

Photo courtesy of Leon from Taipei, Taiwan, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Braga Stadium complex in Braga, Portugal is situated within the area of a former limestone quarry. There is both a reflection on the past with a connection to people’s ancestors who were a part of the quarry operations, while also firmly being enjoyed in the present. The contrast between the geometry of the concrete stadium structure and the roughness of the quarry gives the building a sense of monumentality. The stadium offers athletes and spectators alike a unique and exciting place to enjoy the venue and landmark that is part of transforming a marginal area of the surrounding city and urban fabric into a highly desirable destination. 

Butchart Gardens

A former limestone quarry, which is now Butchart Gardens in Vancouver, Canada, offers visitors millions of plants to view and enjoy. Jennie Butchart, whose family owned and managed the quarry starting in the early 1900s, envisioned transforming the former quarry into a beautiful garden haven, which is now overflowing with lush greens and colorful blooms. Butchart Gardens is a National Historic Site of Canada and is over 100 years old.

Quarry Park and Nature Preserve

Photo courtesy of Coldspring.

Established in 1992, Quarry Park and Nature Preserve in Minnesota demonstrates the creative possibilities that exist for quarries after their active use has ended. The reclaimed quarry site offers space for hiking, biking, picnicking, fishing, swimming, and rock climbing, and was named one of the top 10 swimming holes in the US by the Travel Channel.

Sourcing Responsibly Produced Natural Stone

Choosing natural stone is a smart first step towards ensuring that your project can meet green building goals. Selecting a stone that also has an accompanying LCA, HPD, EPD, or is certified to the Natural Stone Sustainability Standard shows your commitment to sourcing responsibly produced natural stone. Certification to the Standard is the ultimate validation of responsible and sustainable production practices in the natural stone industry. As of 2024, there are 24 quarries and 10 fabricator/producers certified to the Standard. The range of materials certified includes 11 granites, 19 limestones, 5 marbles, and 5 quartzites, making it easy to select and specify a natural stone that is the result of environmentally sound practices within the industry and that will also have a positive impact on the environment, including the land. 

Additional Resources

Natural Stone Institute Sustainability Resources

Natural Stone Sustainability Standard

Natural Stone Resource Library

Natural Stone Catalogue

Use Natural Stone Website 

Manufacturing Impacts article series 

Understanding Environmental and Health Product Declarations for Natural Stone

U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System

International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge 


natural stone sustainability