Sand extraction

Around 50 billion tons of sand and gravel are used each year, making it the second most used resource worldwide after water.

And given our dependency on it for the long-term, sand must be recognised as a strategic resource and its extraction and management needs to be rethought, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Sand and Sustainability: 10 strategic recommendations to avert a crisis has been produced by an international team of experts including Dr Ian Selby, Director of Sustainable Geoscience at the University of Plymouth.

Through his work as a geologist, Dr Selby has worked as a sand resource developer and manager for over three decades and is currently Chair of the UK Minerals Forum. He has been working on sand with UNEP’s Global Resource Information Database in Geneva (GRID-Geneva) to highlight its global importance for several years.

Through their new report, he and his co-authors believe they have provided the necessary guidance to switch to improved practices for the resource’s extraction and management.

Dr Selby said:

“Sand is the largest anthropogenic material flow in the world and we use around 50 billion tons of it every year. Sand provides us with critical economic, societal and environmental benefits, principally as a component of concrete forming our built environment, but also across a wide range of industrial applications, land reclamation and coastal defence.

“In places supply of sand from traditional sources has become unsustainable and its extraction is potentially causing lasting environmental damage. However, demand is constantly growing as the world’s population increases and there are no real alternatives, so we need to manage resources in new and more effective ways.
“This report introduces a series of principles we should adopt on a global scale, and is based on the views of some of the world’s leading experts on sand and its use. We believe its impact will be globally significant and trigger new focus and action to make the use and management of our sand resources more sustainable in the coming decades.”
Dr Ian Selby
Dr Ian Selby

The report says that extracting sand from active environments such as rivers, and coastal or marine ecosystems, poses risks which can lead to erosion, the salination of aquifers, loss of protection against storm surges on the coast and impacts on biodiversity. This, in turn, can threaten livelihoods and quality of life.

They stress that governments, industries and consumers should better understand sand resources and recognise their true social and environmental value. For example, the report recommends that the extraction of sand from beaches be banned due to its importance for coastal resilience.

Keeping sand on coasts is the most cost effective strategy for adapting to climate change due to how it protects against storm surges and impacts from sea level rise – and such services should be factored into its value.

Pascal Peduzzi, Director of GRID-Geneva at UNEP and overall programme coordinator for this report, said:

“To achieve sustainable development, we need to drastically change the way we produce, build and consume products, infrastructures and services. Our sand resources are not infinite, and we need to use them wisely. If we can get a grip on how to manage the most extracted solid material in the world, we can avert a crisis and move toward a circular economy.”

R7 Recycled materials
R8 box 14 Crushed rock
R3 GreenJams 2
R7 Figure 7.3 Concrete armor units

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Thermal image of Plymouth taken by Matthew Fox, Environmental Building Group - Special Commendation in Visions of Sustainability 2015

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