Growing global aggregates sustainably

The Global Aggregates Information Network (GAIN) is a unique voluntary coalition of aggregates associations across the globe with the express purpose of openly sharing best practices for the greater good and sustainability of the industry. Below, Jim O’Brien, GAIN’s convenor, analyses the global aggregates industry and highlights GAIN’s latest work
December 8, 2021
Jim O’Brien pictured during a visit to Stevin Rock’s Khor Khuwair 60 million tonnes/year quarry in the United Arab Emirates, the largest limestone quarry in the world
Jim O’Brien pictured during a visit to Stevin Rock’s Khor Khuwair 60 million tonnes/year quarry in the United Arab Emirates, the largest limestone quarry in the world

Recently, GAIN members provided best estimates of aggregates production in their respective regions, as shown in Table 1. For the pre-pandemic year of 2019, these totalled just under 35 billion tonnes (bnt). Quite surprisingly, the year 2020 showed only a 3.3% decline from 2019, thanks to great industry resilience through the early lockdowns, a decline much less than had been originally feared. Best estimates for 2021 indicate an equally remarkable recovery, with production likely to be 6.3% up on 2020. Most countries anticipate a continued 4.5% growth into 2022, assisted by economic stimuli, thus, in 2022 output is anticipated to reach 37bnt, well exceeding the 2019 pre-pandemic level of production.

The table shows that China has powered through the pandemic with an impressive 8% growth anticipated in 2021. As it moves into its 14th Five-Year Plan 2021-25, it is reporting difficulty in meeting its burgeoning demand, which now amounts to 50% of global aggregates production. India suffered a significant decline of over 18% in 2020, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with steady recovery envisaged in 2021 and 2022, driven by its major infrastructural commitments; its 2021 production of around 5.1bnt now amounts to 11% of global demand.

Table 1: Estimated Global Aggregates Tonnages 2019-2022
Table 1: Estimated Global Aggregates Tonnages 2019-2022

Malaysia suffered a decline of some 40% due to COVID-19 in 2020 which is, unfortunately, worsening in 2021 before an expected recovery in 2022. South Korea saw a very slight slowdown in 2020, with slow growth returning in 2021 and 2022. Japan slowed by 5% in 2020, with low growth in 2021, and may even suffer a post-Olympics decline in 2022. Figures for other countries in Asia are very difficult to ascertain but are certainly suffering in 2021 because of the recent lockdowns due to the Delta variant.

Europe (the EU27 plus UK plus EFTA countries), according to UEPG data, suffered only a 3.4% decline in 2020, far less than had been originally feared, and looks set for modest growth in 2021 and 2022, driven by post-COVID stimuli. The US experience is very similar, with the ongoing COVID Delta variant slowing activity in the more rural regions; however, the recently agreed bipartisan infrastructural stimulus package should drive growth in the coming years. Canada saw a small decline in 2020 but is looking to modest growth in 2021 and 2022.

Looking to Latin America, Mexico suffered a 19% decline in 2020 due to the cancellation of major projects and the pandemic, but recovery is being seen this year and should continue into next year. Colombia saw a 9% decline in 2020 but is now experiencing strong growth due to significant infrastructural development, despite the La Niña rainy conditions. Brazil has seen continued strong growth since 2019 which is expected to continue into 2022, due to demand driven by infrastructural and housing developments. On the other hand, Argentina saw a 50% decline in 2020 primarily due to economic turbulence, with a welcome improvement in 2021 driven by elections, though this may not be sustained into 2022.

In the Middle East, the UAE saw a 15% decline in 2020 and, like other countries in the region, is now experiencing a return to positive growth. In Africa, South Africa experienced COVID-related declines in 2020, which are continuing in 2021 exacerbated by economic difficulties, with a welcome return to growth anticipated in 2022. In Oceania, both New Zealand and Australia saw slight pandemic-related declines in 2020, continuing into 2021 in Australia, with New Zealand looking to solid recovery in 2021 and 2022.  

Figure 1: Production in tonnes/capita
Figure 1: Production in tonnes/capita

As shown in Table 1, adding best estimates for all other (non-GAIN) countries (each based on national population multiplied by the expected tonnes/capita relative to its economic development) leads to an overall global 2021 total of just around 42.2bnt, some 4.6% below the 44.2bnt of 2019. However, driven mainly by China and India, world aggregates production is anticipated to grow by 4.9% and 4.3% in 2021 and 2022 respectively, thus reaching more than 46bnt by 2022 as the global population approaches 8 billion. Continued population and economic growth, particularly in Asia, possibly augmented by demand relating to climate adaptation measures, is likely to drive global aggregates demand to 50-55bnt by 2030.

Meeting the sustainability challenge of illegal sand extraction

As is well known, the burgeoning demand for aggregates, particularly sand, in Asia has regrettably led to significant illegal and/or irresponsible extraction from rivers and beaches, as highlighted in the 2019 UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) Report on Sand and Sustainability: Finding new solutions for environmental governance of global sand resources. While this irresponsible sand extraction likely represents less than 10% of global aggregates demand, it is highly visible and damages landscapes as well as the good reputation of the responsible aggregates industry.

For these reasons, GAIN members have collectively addressed the sand scarcity issue, collating valuable experiences and best practices based on case studies from China, India, Malaysia, Colombia, Mexico, USA, Canada and New Zealand, supplemented by relevant inputs from UK, Netherlands, Myanmar, and Japan. As a particular example, these best practices were encapsulated in a report for WWF Vietnam with recommendations to address the challenges of excessive extraction in the Mekong Delta.

The common five key success factors of these excellent case studies in addressing irresponsible extraction were:

  • A national commitment to address the irresponsible extraction issue (which sometimes exists only as lip-service).
  • A strong regional permitting authority, empowered and committed to tackling the challenge.
  • A national aggregates or professional association which ensures quality control in sand production and in the downstream construction activity.
  • A project champion, empowered by government and regional authorities, who engages with all stakeholders to achieve concerted action.
  • Strongly enforced permits for annually defined sand budgets, policed 24/7, using the latest IT surveillance technology including drones.
  • And, very importantly, encouraging and possibly even incentivising the parallel substitution of natural sand by manufactured sand

The successes being achieved, if continued and extended, can potentially resolve irresponsible extraction by 2030. GAIN and its members are playing their part in working towards this goal.

Excelling in other sustainability challenges

Figure 2: Production by Region, 2021
Figure 2: Production by Region, 2021

Manufactured sand is the key technical solution to sustainably replacing natural sands, now being strongly driven in China and India. Significant advances in processing technology have enabled the production of manufactured sands that have superior performances over natural sand, such as in higher flexural strength, better abrasion resistance, higher unit weight and lower permeability.

Another key initiative in reducing the use of natural sand is to encourage recycling of construction and demolition materials. This is another area where GAIN members have exchanged valuable insights and best practices. Europe leads in this regard, where the economics of recycling are driven by higher primary aggregates prices and high costs for landfilling waste materials; for example, over 20% of aggregates demand in countries like UK, Belgium and Netherlands are provided by recycled and other secondary aggregates.

At the other end of the scale, similar economic forces do not yet exist in developing regions, and indeed the availability of demolition materials is low as most construction is new-build. Recycling as part of the circular economy will doubtless increasingly feature as a key part of industry sustainability.

Experiences shared amongst GAIN members point to every aspect of the industry being increasingly focused on sustainability. Every operating parameter is benefitting from digitalisation, from resource optimisation right through to extraction and processing, to better meet the demands of customers and the market.

The industry is focused on reducing water usage and has a key role in fostering biodiversity both during operation and in restoration. The aggregates industry is providing the key product for the sustainability of society, led by its highly committed GAIN members.