Usage of sand worldwide presents critical sustainability implications

Olivia Miller
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New research co-authored by Sophus zu Ermgassen, a PhD student at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), has highlighted the sustainability implications of the use of sand and construction minerals across the world.

With sand embedded in the concrete of nearly all of the world’s buildings, roads, glass in windows, laptops, phone screens and more, researchers have called for a stronger focus on understanding the physical dimension of sand use and extraction.

Published by One Earth, the research explores the socio-environmental and physical dimensions of sand supply networks, linking extraction, processing, distribution, economics and policy, to gain an in-depth understanding of the stresses on both nature and people.

Led by Dr Aurora Torres and Dr Jianguo “Jack” Liu at Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS), the research utilises Dr Liu’s telecoupling framework model to provide a more robust and holistic perspective on the sand system across different spatio-temporal scales. It allows for understanding and quantifying socioeconomic and environmental interactions from mining sites to consumption sites, such as cities, and spillover systems such as the transport corridors or rural landfills where the mining and construction waste piles up.

In addition, the authors highlight that robust strategies for managing sand resources depend on a solid understanding of the construction aggregates cycle, mapping construction material demand and supply over time. This helps to inform stakeholder decisions and policymaking around how long resources will last and how the entire supply system can be optimised to reduce negative impacts of sand mining and make use of substitute materials.

With demand for construction aggregates predicted to rise in the next decade, understanding how sand-supply networks work is relevant not only for assessing their full impacts, but also for identifying leverage points for sustainability.

Dr Torres said: ‘As with climate change, there is not a single solution but multiple entry points for more sustainable consumption. Possible pathways include reducing material demand per capita, promoting compact urban development for more efficient material use, reducing reliance on natural deposits by developing the market and technologies for secondary materials such as construction and demolition waste.’

Sophus zu Ermgassen said: ‘Understanding the interlinkages of sand supply and demand is critical to reducing negative impacts such as the disruption to natural environments and creating human conflict. This research provides useful insights for meeting these challenges.’

Their research paper ‘Sustainability of the global sand system in the urban era’ is published by One Earth. (Aurora Torres and Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS); Mark Simoni and Daniel B. Müller of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway; Jakob Keiding of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland in København, Denmark; Sophus zu Ermgassen of the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK; Jochen Jaeger of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada; Marten Winter at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, Germany; and Eric F. Lambin at Stanford University in Stanford, CA.) doi: 10.1016/j.oneear.2021.04.011

The work was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement (846474) through the SANDLINKS project.