Rethink sand use, move to circular economy: UNEP

United Nations Environment Programme recommends solutions for better sand management in new report

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 26 April 2022
Rethink sand use, move to circular economy: UNEP Photo: iStock

The world needs to rethink the extraction and use of sand, the second-most used resource globally, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlighted in a new report. 

The report released by UNEP’s Global Resource Information Database-Geneva team April 26, 2022 provides necessary guidance gathered from world experts to switch to improved practices for the extraction and management of soil. 

Extracting sand where it plays an active role, such as rivers and coastal or marine ecosystems, can cause a series of damages to the environment, according to Sand and Sustainability: 10 strategic recommendations to avert a crisis. The damages include:

  • Erosion
  • Salination of aquifers
  • Loss of protection against storm surges 
  • Impacts on biodiversity

These challenges pose a threat to livelihoods through water supply, food production, fisheries, or to the tourism industry, the report said.

Around 50 billion tonnes of sand and gravel is used every year, which is enough to build a wall 27 metres wide and 27 metres high around Earth, according to UNEP. Sand is being used faster than it can be naturally replenished, so its responsible management is crucial, it added.

Sand must be recognised as a strategic resource, not only as a material for construction, but also for its multiple roles in the environment, said the authors of the report. 

They stressed that governments, industries and consumers should price sand in a way that recognises its true social and environmental value.

Extraction of sand from beaches should be banned due to its importance for coastal resilience, the environment and the economy, the report recommended. It 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”, the body observed.

An international standard on how sand is extracted from the marine environment should be developed, UNEP proposed in the report. This can bring about dramatic improvements as most marine dredging is done through public tenders open to international companies. 

The need for new institutional and legal structures for better governance of the resource and involvement of stakeholders and need for “place-based approaches” for better management of the resource, the report underlined.

Pascal Peduzzi, director of GRID-Geneva 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 towards a circular economy.

Sand provides “breeding grounds for diverse flora and fauna, and it also plays a vital function in supporting biodiversity, including marine plants that act as carbon sinks or filter water”, the report said, stressing why sand is important for sustaining life on earth.

Solutions exist for moving towards a circular economy for sand, such as banning the landfilling of mineral waste and encouraging sand to be reused in public procurement contracts, the report highlighted. 

Alternatives to sand like crushed rock or recycled construction and demolition material, as well as ‘ore-sand’ from mine-tailings can also help in the transition, the authors noted.

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