Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: These Aggregates are Rarer Than You Might Think!

Sand and gravel are mined world-wide and account for the largest volume of solid material extracted globally. The demand for these aggregates stems from a wide range of sectors, including production of glass, electronics and aeronautics. However, its largest use is in construction and land reclamation.

Aggregates constitute the foundation for modern civilization and are essential for providing shelter, infrastructure, and communication, but are an increasingly scarce resource.

Formed by erosive processes over thousands of years, sand is currently being extracted at a rate far greater than their renewal. On top of that, the volume being extracted is having a major impact on rivers, deltas and coastal and marine ecosystems.

It’s time to challenge the paradigm of infinite sand resources through constructive dialogue and solution-finding.

Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
Credit: Caroline Kist Photography

The Problem: Extraction has a Cost

We have been saying this for years: Planet Earth is running out of raw materials!

Sand and gravel are the second largest resource extracted and traded by volume after water. Yet it is one of the least regulated activities in many regions. These aggregates are, in most cases, a free resource, but their extraction comes at the expenses of other economic sectors and local livelihoods.

From beach- and river erosion leading to the damaging of houses and infrastructure, the arrival of less tourists and the loss of agricultural land to extreme events such as floods, droughts, storms, to the undercutting or undermining of engineering structures such as bridges, side protection walls and structures for water supply – sand mining always has a cost.

The dredging and extraction of aggregates from the bottom of the sea also destroys organisms, habitats and ecosystems. This deeply affects the composition of biodiversity and usually leads to a net decline in faunal biomass and abundance or a shift in species composition. Long-term recovery can occur only where original sediment composition is being restored.

Besides the damage of sand extraction itself, it’s important to also take into account the carbon dioxide emissions from transportation.


TIP – To read more about the demands, trends, impact and regulation of sand mining worldwide, we can recommend to read the report “Impacts of sand mining on ecosystem structure, process and biodiversity in rivers” by Lois Koehnken (WWF). You can find it here.

Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
Direct and indirect consequences of aggregates dredging on the marine environment. [source:, 2014]
Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
[source:, 2018]
Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
[source:, 2019]

How Much Sand do we Need?

The demand for sand resources is rising. Shifting consumption patterns, growing populations, increasing urbanization and infrastructure development have increased demand three-fold over the last two decades. [source]

Here are some other sa(n)d facts:

  • Crushed rock, sand and gravel account for the largest volume of solid material resources extracted from systems globally. [source: Peduzzi, 2014; Beiser, 2018]
  • An estimated 40-50 billion metric tonnes of these aggregates is extracted from quarries, pits, rivers, coastlines and the marine environment each year. [source: Peduzzi, 2014; Beiser, 2018]
  • The construction industry consumes over half of this volume annually (25.9 billion to 29.6 billion tonnes in 2012) and could consume even more in future. [source: UNEP, 2014]
  • Worldwide, we need about 50 billion tonnes of sand resources per year, an average of 18 kg per person per day. [source, 2019]
  • Global aggregates demand will likely rise to 60 billion tonnes per annum by 2030 driven by increased population, urbanisation and economic growth. [source: Global Aggregates Information Network (GAIN), 2016]
  • The aggregates industry is by far the largest extraction industry in Europe. The European aggregates demand is over 3 billion tonnes per year, representing an annual turnover estimated at €15-20 billion. [source / EU28+EFTA, 2017]
  • Least developed regions use 3-4 tonnes per capita per year for aggregates production and developed regions with slow growth and flat terrain use 4-8 tonnes per capita per year. Growing economies with rugged terrain and harsh climates can use between 8-16 tonnes per capita per year. China stands out at 14.3 tonnes per capita per year. [source: Global Aggregates Information Network (GAIN), 2016]
  • The European average demand for aggregates is almost 6 tonnes per capita per year. [source, / EU+EFTA, 2017]
  • Crushed and terrestrially derived pit-mined aggregate is the largest source of material in the EU, with manufactured, recycled or marine aggregates collectively contributing <10% of the total. 90% of the aggregate is used in the production of concrete, asphalt or as structural material. [source: European Aggregates Association / EUPG, 2012)
  • In The Netherlands alone, excavation companies produce about 90 million tonnes of sand, 5 million tonnes of gravel and 4 million tonnes of clay every year from the Dutch subsurface. [source, 2022]
  • It is estimated that building 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) of a European highway needs 216,000 tons of sand, gravel and grit. [source, 2019]
  • In Europe (EU28), according to the UEPG (Union Européenne des Producteurs de Granulats), there are a total of some 13.900 companies extracting aggregates such as sand, gravel and natural stone. The number of operational sand and gravel pits and quarries is stated to be 24.540. [source, 2019]
  • The main producers in Europe are Germany, France, Poland, the United Kingdom and Italy, which together account for nearly 63 % of the output. [source, 2019]
  • The Top 10 in Europe, which also include Spain, Austria, Sweden, Romania and Belgium, account for a total of almost 80 %. [source, 2019]
  • In the preparation of concrete (made with cement, water, sand and gravel), for each tonne of cement, the building industry needs about six to seven times more tonnes of sand and gravel. [USGS, 2013b] And for each tonne of cement, an average of 0.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced. [source, 2021]
  • Two thirds of global cement production occurs in China (58.5%) and India (6.6%). [source: USGS, 2017; Gavriletea, 2017]
  • China and India also lead in global infrastructure construction. [Bagnasco et al., 2015; Global Construction 2030; World Economic Forum (WEF), 2019]
  • In total, China, India and Asia represents 67% of global aggregates production. [source: Global Aggregates Information Network (GAIN), 2016]


TIP – Make sure to also check out our blog about statistics on waste generation >

Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
Sand, gravel and the SDGs [source:, 2021]
Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
Distribution of sources and uses of aggregate in the EU [source:, 2018]
Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
Estimates of Europe Aggregates Production [source:, 2019]
Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
Amount of sand and gravel used for cement production [source:, 2019]
Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
National production tonnages by country and by type of aggregates for all 42 countries. [source:, 2019]
Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!

Sand Maffia – It’s Real!

Adding all the sand of beaches and deserts in the world, scientists estimate that Earth contains 7.5 sextillion sand grains. That is 75 followed by 17 zeros. You’d think that this would be enough to supply the demand of sand for construction and other industries in the world, but not all sand is created equally.

Sand used for construction is scarce. For example, most sand from deserts cannot be used for concrete and land reclaiming, as the process of wind erosion forms round grains that do not bind well. We saw this in locations such as Dubai, where desert sand could not be used and the country’s own marine sand resources became exhausted. Sand had to be imported from Australia to finish building the Burj Khalifa tower, for example.

Sand was, until recently, extracted in land quarries and riverbeds; however, a shift to marine and coastal aggregates mining has occurred due to the decline of inland resources, like it happened in Dubai. Although the consequences of substrate mining are hidden, they are tremendous. And above water, a new problem has arisen as well.

Filmmaker Denis Delestrac saw during the making of his documentary “Sand Wars” (must watch!) how people in Morocco took their shovels to remove every last grain of sand from a beach – turning it from a paradise into a lunar landscape. According to him, the “sand mafia” is the second most powerful criminal organization in Morocco.

Sustainable Building Materials: BioCement BioBasedTiles®Salt & Pepper - StoneCycling® X Biomason®
Our BioCement BioBasedTiles®

Some Solutions:

The anticipated growth and urbanization of the global population over the next several decades will create a vast demand for the construction of new housing, commercial buildings and accompanying infrastructure. This requires a change in the way we work with raw materials:

  • Avoiding unnecessary consumption of natural sand – This can be achieved by optimising the use of existing buildings and infrastructure, as well as by using recycled building and quarry dust material as a substitute for sand. Especially when it comes to low-quality end-use, such as filling for highways, rubble should be re-used to avoid using aggregates.
  • Developing alternative building materials – This is something we’ve been doing for years now at StoneCycling, starting with our WasteBasedBricks® and WasteBasedSlips®: our proof that it’s possible to build high-quality, aesthetic structures from waste. And have you seen our BioBasedTiles® yet? These are the first ever bio-based tiles that grow with the help of bacteria. 
  • Educating everyone in the value chain – The majority of the current building industry is geared toward traditional brick and concrete know-how and equipment, so training of architects and engineers is needed to grow our knowledge of using renewable and recycled materials for building houses and roads.
  • Making alternatives economically viable – By setting fair prices and even taxes on aggregates extraction, we create incentives on looking for alternatives. Sand is still very cheap and freely accessible, so there is little or no incentive to induce a change in our consumption. Implementing new laws and regulations and positive incentives or certification schemes in regards to the use of sustainable materials (such as the New Green Deal in Europe, as well as assessment tools like BREEAM and LEED) will initiate a shift for lowering our dependency on sand.
  • Adequate information to regulate extraction – Except for in the European Union, regulation efforts are few, especially in developing countries. The lack of proper scientific methodology for river sand mining has led to indiscriminate sand mining while weak governance and corruption have led to widespread illegal mining. Access to data should become easier and it should be more standardised. There should also be more collaboration/co-ordination between the marine scientific research establishments and the marine aggregates industry.
  • Raising public awareness – As a consequence to the absence of adequate data, a large discrepancy exists between the magnitude of the problem and public awareness of it. The implementation of a monitoring mechanism regarding global aggregate extractions and trade would shed light on the magnitude of this issue and bridge the current data and knowledge gap. This would also raise this issue on the political agenda and perhaps lead to an international framework to improve extraction governance, as the current level of political concern clearly does not match the urgency of the situation.


TIP – For more solutions, we can highly recommend to read the report “Sand and Sustainability: Finding New Solutions for Environmental Governance of Global Sand Resources” by  the United Nations Environment Programme from 2019. You can find it here.

The Road to Circular Construction

With our waste-based and bio-based products, we are on the road to making circular construction the standard. Will you join us in our mission?

Gravel and Sand Used for Construction: Aggregates are Rarer Than You Think!
Schematic representation of the transition towards circular economy in relation with minerals and metals [source:, 2020]

We might give little thought to sand and gravel, but they build the foundations of our economies. A whole new approach is needed: a shift from a linear to a circular materials chain. This type of societal shift is similar to that required to address climate change, and will necessitate changes in the way that sand is perceived, and cities are designed and constructed.

Sand Glossary

We’ve established that no sand is alike, but with all the different names that specific types of sand have around the world, it might be confusing to differentiate. Here is a quick overview of the most common types of sand used for construction (and the types that can’t be used):

Sharp Sand / Pit Sand / Concrete Sand

Fairly course and angular grains, primarily used in making concrete. This sand is mainly mined from inland areas away from the coast to avoid salt residue. For sand to be used in the making of concrete, it’s important to avoid contamination with clay, topsoil, or vegetation. Using impure sand affects the formation of proper bonds between the cement and the sand. Poor bonds can lead to instable structures.

Builders Sand / Masonry Sand / River Sand

Smaller and rounded off grains, primarily used in bricklaying, screeding and plastering applications. This sand is mainly mined from the beds and banks of rivers.

Jointing Sand / Silver Sand / Beach Sand

Very fine and smooth/rounded grains, consisting largely of quartz particles that are not coated with iron oxides. After thorough washing, it’s primarily used recreationally (like golf courses and children’s sand pits). This sand is mainly mined from beaches and areas around coastlines.

M-Sand / Manufactured Sand

The product of crushing granites into a finer texture, used as a substitute for river sand for concrete construction due to its durability and flexibility. It is usually cheaper than river sand, since it can be manufactured closer to the destination. It can also be dust free and the sizes can be controlled easily so that it meets the required grading for the given construction.

Desert Sand

Very fine and overly smooth grains, not suited for construction.

Utility Sand / Fill Sand

Multi-coloured sand that’s typically made from quartz. Primarily used to fill utility pipes and trenches, but also as back fill behind retaining walls, and fill underneath concrete slabs and driveways.

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