12 Apr 2021
‘Are we running out of sand and construction aggregates in the UK?’ I periodically get asked this question in relation to availability for concrete, prompted I suspect by reports related to a shortages elsewhere in the world. The answer, put very succinctly, is No.
Many people are unaware that concrete as a construction material doesn’t really travel. Unlike other construction materials, concrete and the constituents of concrete are locally produced materials. The UK is essentially self-sufficient in aggregates, with imports and exports each accounting for less than 5% of UK demand, and tend to be for specialist applications. It follows that unlike other construction materials, shortages experienced elsewhere in the world, as well as the need to import, are not a major concern for the specification and construction of concrete in the UK.
There are of course regional variations to this statement due to the geology of the UK. There is a geographic imbalance between where resources are geologically available, and where they are used. This means that some regions of the UK are net producers, while others are net consumers.
Access to geological resources is understandably subject to a number of constraints – a complex mix of social, environmental and economic factors that have to be managed to ensure sustainable supply of resources. The UK has a well-established regulatory system to manage where and how mineral extraction takes place. I am often quoted stories in the media about stealing sand, these are not from the UK, or Europe, so would not be in the supply chain for concrete made in the UK.
The UK mineral extraction sector also has a track-record of enhancing biodiversity. Statistics from the Mineral Products Association (MPA) record that over 8000 hectares of former quarries have been restored to create priority habitats, with over 11,000 hectares in the planning: great news for UK’s wildlife habitats and biodiversity. There is an initiative from the sector called Quarries & Nature.
As the latest guidance in the NPPF says “It is essential that there is a sufficient supply of minerals to provide the infrastructure, buildings, energy and goods that the country needs.”
MPA report that there is physically plenty of sand in the UK for many years to come, but in order to make sure we can continue to answer to the question ‘ are we running out of sand?’ robust, long-term strategic national policies are required, that continue to allow a steady and adequate minerals supply to be properly planned, monitored and managed.
Some stats about resource efficiency of the domestic supply of aggregates in the UK include
- Imports and exports each account for less than 5% of UK demand.
- Proportion of the UK land area subject to all mineral extraction and activity = 0.3%
- Proportion of the UK seabed subject to marine aggregates extraction = 0.01%
- Share of GB aggregates market supplied from recycled sources = 30%
- Over 8000 hectares of former quarries have been restored to priority habitats with a further 11,000 planned.
That is nearly 20,000 hectares of protected land supporting biodiversity.
For more information about Aggregates and Sand in the UK visit: www.mineralproducts.org
For more information about the Sustainability Credentials of UK Concrete and its Constituent Materials visit www.sustainableconcrete.org.uk
For more information about Aggregates and Sands used in concrete across the world visit: https://gccassociation.org/
Written by - Elaine Toogood, head of architecture at The Concrete Centre