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The ongoing, sustainable supply of essential aggregates and mineral resources cannot and should not be assumed - MPA

Mark Russell, Executive Director, Planning and Mineral Resources | Mineral Products Association

5 min read Partner content

Robust, long-term strategic national policies is required to allow a steady and adequate supply of mineral resources, says the Mineral Products Association.


In recent years there has been a growing media profile around society’s demand for sand, the potential for global shortages and unregulated extraction. While the references to resource pressures have typically focussed on ‘sand’, what is usually being referred to are construction aggregates more generally and particularly sand & gravel. But equally important are some of the more specialised industrial minerals that are needed to support cement production, glass manufacture and water filtration.

After water, these mineral resources represent the largest volume of natural materials consumed by society globally, primarily reflecting the need for homes, infrastructure and sanitation. Around half the world’s population already live in urban areas across the globe and they are being joined by an additional 200,000 people every day, largely driven by industrialisation and urbanisation in emerging economies as they look to help transition their societies out of poverty. With the global population predicted to grow from 7.5 billion to 10 billion by 2050, the impact on the need for urban development and associated infrastructure means that the demands for construction aggregates will increase. Current global demand for construction materials is estimated to be around 30 billion tonnes each year, with forecasts suggesting that by 2050 annual demand could be as high as 70 billion tonnes. But it is important to recognise that these demands and associated pressures equally apply to all natural resources. The challenge is how to respond to these growing demands to ensure more sustainable levels of consumption. In this respect, construction aggregates have a major advantage, in that they can be readily recycled for re-use, reducing the need for primary materials.

While the media headlines have been around the risks of global society running out of sand, in reality what is happening is that the sources of cheap, readily available resources are becoming constrained. As the demand for construction materials grows, limited availability results in commodity prices increasing, which in turn encourages ‘grey’ or illegal activity - particularly in developing economies. As the media coverage has illustrated, this can result in significant environmental and social consequences, particularly in locations where the application of policy or delivery of regulation and enforcement may be more challenging.

Looking closer to home, exactly the same societal demands exist in the UK. This is reflected in the 1 million tonnes of extracted mineral and mineral products that flow through the national economy every single day, the vast majority from indigenous sources.

The challenge the mineral products industry faces is that this demand tends to go un-noticed by Government and the wider society. In many respects, mineral products represent a Cinderella industry – largely out of sight of the public and political eye, but nevertheless essential to maintain and develop the quality of life everyone takes for granted.

It is interesting to look at what happens when other things society takes for granted become constrained – water (threat of hosepipe bans) and energy are obvious examples. But just last year we had the great chicken shortage of a well- known fast food restaurant, while earlier this year we mustn’t forget the media attention around CO2 shortages and its potential impact on the availability of beer. Neither of these issues were what Maslow was thinking about when he was developing his hierarchy of human needs. However, whenever something that is relied upon becomes constrained or removed it generally triggers some kind of societal reaction, increasingly fuelled by the media attention it generates.

So are we running out of sand and construction aggregates in the UK? Underpinning this is the basic principle that minerals can only be worked where they are found, which creates a geographic imbalance between where resources are geologically available, and where the demands for their use arise. This means that some parts of the country are net producers, while others are net consumers.  It is also important to understand that the access to geological resources will be subject to a number of constraints – a complex mix of social, environmental and economic factors that have to be managed to ensure resources can be secured to maintain the supplies that society relies upon.

Consequently, when viewed at a UK scale, it is not so much that we are running out of sand (although some areas are becoming depleted), rather than the time, effort and cost required to secure the resources that society relies upon have increased, and are likely to continue to do so in the future. A well established and evolving regulatory system is in place to manage where and how mineral extraction takes place in this country. Operational standards are generally high and good quality restoration of extraction sites, often to provide new wildlife habitats and increase biodiversity, takes place. In addition, nearly 30% of aggregates supply is sourced from the recycling of demolition wastes and materials arising from other industrial activities. So while the sustainability of aggregates and mineral supply is always an issue, addressing this is central to the way industry operations in the UK are managed and regulated.

The core message underpinning all of this – for society, for government and even for the industry themselves – is that the ongoing, sustainable supply of these essential resources cannot and should not be assumed. It requires robust, long-term strategic national policies that allow a steady and adequate supply to be properly planned, monitored and managed. Only with the right policy and governance arrangements in place can society be sure that the right resources will be able to be provided in the right place and at the right time.

 

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