A metaphor for abundance, beaten only by the number of stars in the sky: sand seems ubiquitous and deeply ordinary. Sure, we should protect the world’s forests, keep oil in the ground. But why should we care about sand?
Firstly, the amount we use is colossal: more than any other solid material on earth, with 50 billion tonnes extracted per year, or 17kg per day for everyone on Earth. Crucial to the construction of buildings and infrastructure, sand is also used in vast quantities in glass manufacturing, in addition to applications in electronics, fracking, and even creating whole new areas of land.
Secondly, there is less useable sand than you might think. Only jagged-edged sand can be used for industrial applications, extracted from rivers, coastlines, and quarries. Desert sand is off the table. For all intents and purposes, sand is non-renewable – the slow geologic processes which create it have no chance of keeping up with its removal.
Earlier this year, the UN has described rapid demand for sand as ‘one of the major sustainability challenges of the 21st century’, advocating urgent action to avoid a ‘sand crisis’. As demand for this material rises, so does the evidence of disturbing impacts across the globe related to its extraction.
The increasing demand for this unassuming material is wreaking havoc on people and nature across the world. Sand mined from rivers and the marine environment is often dredged, destroying habitats and fundamentally altering the functioning of the ecosystem. One of the gravest examples of this can be found at China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang, where changes in hydrology believed to be caused by extensive sand mining have caused abnormally low lake levels and threatened its status as a biodiversity haven.
Sand extraction also inevitably removes natural protection against erosion and flooding, which alongside potential loss of food sources seriously affects local communities’ resilience in the face of climate change.
In areas where poverty and political insecurity collide with intense competition for this resource, violence and human rights abuses are shockingly prevalent. In recent years areas have become conflict zones and lives have been lost over sand in Mexico, India, Indonesia, Kenya and Gambia. Illegal sand mining is the primary source of these tensions, but legal mines are also not immune, with reported land conflicts and use of child labour in some Ghanaian mines.
Although the most concerning coverage on sand mining comes from overseas, marine dredging for sand is becoming more common in the UK with associated concerns about habitat loss and coastal erosion. In all regions, organisations procuring sand and aggregates should consider ways to reduce the demand and include responsible sourcing of these materials within sustainability strategies.
Below are some recommendations for stakeholders across the value chain.
Include environmental footprint indicators in sustainability reporting which include mining impacts and work towards continual reduction.
Undertake supply chain mapping focused on sand, in addition to more widely known ‘conflict minerals’ and resources such as timber or soy, to understand security of supply and possible sustainability risks.
Adopt a responsible sourcing framework for sand and aggregates, setting clear guidelines and accountability processes, and work with suppliers to continually improve. Encourage practices which improve holistic environmental and social performance.
Circularity is crucial to reducing demand for sand and aggregates in an urbanising world. Reduce use of new extracted materials by switching to low-impact materials or increasing the amount of recycled material.
In construction, think about applications where alternative aggregates could be utilised. In glass manufacture, work to increase the amount of cullet used, which also reduces GHG emissions of the process. And on a larger scale, asset owners and planners should prioritise refurbishment over demolition and rebuild.
International frameworks and governmental action at all scales will be needed to enable truly sustainable extraction and management of sand resources. But organisations can have an impact right now by improving management of supply chains and practicing resource efficient design.
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