Is Sand the Next Ecological Time-Bomb?

One of the most ubiquitous natural resources in the word is sand.  It is apparently second only to water in terms of its volume.  However, like water, things are not as benign in the world of sand extraction as they might seem. I recently undertook some work with a leading environmental writer, Soila Apparicio, looking at how we use sand in the construction process and whether we need to revise our processes to take account of its impact on the environment. She has opened my eyes to some of the unintended consequence of over-mining for sand.

Firstly, it’s important that we all understand that cement is probably the most vital raw material used in the construction process, and that without sand aggregate it would not exist. The UK itself is broadly self-sufficient in aggregates, with imports and exports each accounting for less than 5% of UK demand.

The need for us to build a vast number of new houses (300,000 per annum), when viewed at a UK scale, means we will be using more sand in the future. The issue is not so much that we are running out of this resource but rather the time, effort and cost implications of securing the resources that society needs going forward.

For instance, concrete production has a huge and hidden impact on the climate. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest CO2 emitter in the world. In 2015, it generated around 2.8 billion tonnes of C02, equivalent to 8% of the global total – a greater share than any country other than China and the United States. China is estimated to consume more sand in three years than the United States consumed in the entire 20th century, according to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Environmental impacts have also been felt in the UK. Friends of the Earth claims that the local bird population of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, one of Europe’s most important wetlands and where 1.7 million tonnes of sand is dredged a year, has declined by more than 75% in the past 30 years. Additionally, fish habitats have been harmed by worsening water quality.

We need to place this issue into perspective. Being virtually self-sufficient in terms of sand extraction and having modest expansion plans compared to China or the USA, the UK is clearly not one of the sand bandits – ripping up vast swathes of coastline and polluting lakes willy-nilly to keep our builders happy. However, us Britons do place ourselves at the top table of enviro campaigners, as exemplified by the new ambitious targets set by HMG to be carbon neutral by 2050. Surely we have a moral obligation to speak out when we see wrong being committed in other parts of the world?

In countries that are still undergoing industrialisation, for instance, the demand for sand means they could face shortages which would result in an unstable economic situation and, subsequently, illegal and unsustainable extraction. The stealing or illegal dredging of sand due to poverty in countries such as India, Vietnam and Indonesia opens these places up to organised crime and violence. Sand mining has been linked to disappearing landscapes, falling biodiversity, an increase in crime, violence, and poverty, and an increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters. There has even a new criminal elite created called “the Sand Mafia”.

Ok, it is true that in more developed nations, mainly in Europe, the systems in place are better equipped to ensure sustainability when extracting the resource. However, we should not stand idly by and watch others in the world pump out CO2 and despoil the environment in search of a commodity that we all thought was inexhaustible.

Richard Steer is Chairman of Gleeds Worldwide.