The sand business explodes to the detriment of the planet

Sand is not only synonymous with beach, swimming, sun and vacation. It is also used to build roads, bridges, schools, buildings … In short, cities. “Sand is the unsung hero of our development,” said Sheila Aggarwal-khan, director of the finance department of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in a report released on April 26. Truth and sustainability: Ten recommendations to avoid the crisis. 50 billion tons of sand and aggregate are used every year according to the UN, or 17 kg per. day and per. person. According to the report, global consumption has tripled in two decades, damaging rivers, coasts and islands. It is thus the second most used resource in the world after water.

China, the world’s largest importer

The main component of cement, concrete, asphalt and glass, its primary use is in construction (roads, railways, drainage, etc.), which accounts for almost 90% of total consumption. A sector where total production has increased from 42 billion tonnes in 2020 to 44 billion tonnes in 2021, an increase of almost 5% in a year according to the UN. Knowing that a ton of sand dedicated to construction costs around 5.7 euros, the construction contract market is worth 251 billion euros. China Harbor Engineering Company is one of the largest sand mining companies in the world. Hardly surprising when one knows that the sand industry is booming in Asia. China uses almost 52% of the sand extracted worldwide, according to work by the GAIN (Global Aggregates Information Network) coalition, compared to 9.6% in Europe, 13% in India or 5.5% in Africa.

In Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands are also home to the world’s largest sand mining groups, such as the Cloedt group or the Broskalis company. In France, the majority of companies specializing in the production of aggregates belong to the National Union of Aggregates Producers (UNPG), which achieved a turnover of 3.9 billion in 2019. In addition to these groups, it is mainly construction companies that invest in, among others. a. extraction of contracts. “It is more profitable to have a dual specialty and to use the materials you extract yourself to build,” notes Pascal Peduzzi, heads the Global Resource Information Database (Grid) network, one of UNEP’s research centers and Director of the UN Report. Market leaders, the French concrete producers, Lafarge and Vinci and the Italian Italcementi have mainly invested in the sea.

Apart from construction, aggregates are also used to rebuild beaches, as in Miami or Singapore, which has imported 517 million tons of sand over the last twenty years, according to the UN, to expand its territory by 20%. Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or the Philippines have turned sand into an export industry. Added to these uses is industrial sand, which uses a variety based on Sicily, cleaner and of great finesse. They are bought between 33 and 52 euros to make glass or windows or several hundred euros per. tons for computer chips.

Alongside the legal exploitation of aggregates, uncontrolled extraction is rampant all over the world. According to some experts, it represents up to 50% of the total market. “In the absence of rules in developing countries, the informal sector earns huge profits by extracting sand that is resold for construction,” explains Pascal Peduzzi. The UN report cites the example of the state of Andhra Pradesh in south-eastern India, where tons of sand are mined illegally. Faced with tons of illegally extracted sand, Indian law has imposed restrictions on companies (such as mining rights in 2014). In reality, they are not respected. In Sri Lanka, the Philippines or Indonesia, illegal sand mining causes social conflicts and harms the environment.

Irreversible effects on the planet

Because the overexploitation of sand globally threatens the planet seriously. For Eric Chaumillon, Professor of Marine and Coastal Geology at La Rochelle University and CNRS and author of exploitation of sea sand and aggregates: a threat to the coasts ?, the sand industry prevents protection from swell and storm attacks, and has irreversible effects on habitats and living beings and human activities. The risk of seeing the resource run out is also real, as humans consume much more than what nature is capable of producing.

To regulate the market and protect the environment, why not give sand and the services provided to humans an inherent value? Nature provides a certain number of services to humans (food, water purification, protection against floods or mitigation of climate change, etc.). But according to Robert Costanza, one of the founders of ecological economics, these services could be paid for by those who utilize the resources. The UN, for its part, insists on the urgency of treating sand as a “strategic resource that provides essential ecosystem services” and calls for cross-border cooperation. The organization is also committed to saving resources by using wood, straw, brick and earth instead of sand and concrete. “We can also recycle buildings and recycle the ash from waste incineration to avoid waste,” adds Pascal Peduzzi.

At the international level, the cause of sand is slowly advancing. In 2019, the UN voted a “resolution on the management of mineral resources”, asking countries around the world to share their knowledge in order to achieve a fair use. “We took a long time to understand the importance of the resource, now we have to shift a gear,” insists Pascal Peduzzi.

In France, a more sustainable use of sand falls into place

In France, to establish a quarry, the operator must request an activity permit from the prefecture which ensures that the installation meets environmental requirements. The device is much more monitored than in the 1970s, when all that was needed was a simple statement at City Hall to open a career. As far as marine extraction is concerned, it is also very much framed by specific legislation under the Mining Act and the Environmental Act. Far, therefore, illegal practices in Asia and Africa. The National Union of Aggregates Producers (UNPG), which represents the sector, strives to make little use of it, with only 2% of the total extraction of aggregates (453 million tonnes in total) coming from the sea. Finally, 30% of the materials are obtained from recycled materials (deconstruction, demolition of buildings or roads, incineration of household waste, etc.). “76% of what can be recycled is recycled. We expect 90% in 2028 “, emphasizes Olivier Viano, Secretary General of the UNPG. Another aspect of the strategy to reduce the environmental footprint is decarbonization. It involves reducing material transport distances and maintaining spaces close to consumption areas. The organization also intends to soon distribute a tool to its members for calculating CO2 emissions and energy consumption.

Leave a Comment