Environmental News, Features, International News

‘Urgent action’: Auckland’s sand shortage impacts sector

Auckland is running out of sand. With a looming sand shortage, Quarry looks at how New Zealand is confronting the issue.

The sands of time are slipping away from Auckland and the North Island,  and New Zealand needs solutions to cover material shortfalls.

According to the Aggregate and Quarry Association (AQA) of New Zealand, Auckland ran out of sand for construction briefly before Christmas.

This led to concrete manufacturers being unable to deliver to customers and building delays.

For AQA chief executive Wayne Scott, the sand shortage is a familiar tale. In March last year, he wrote to the New Zealand Government to warn about the pending shortfall.

“This will impact across transport, infrastructure, economic development, housing and much more. We know this is not of the Government’s making, but interim solutions are desperately needed,” Scott said.

“The quarry industry has done all it can to issue the warnings and meet the shortfall but it’s beyond us to resolve.”

Traditionally, sand extraction from rivers and beaches in New Zealand has been used as a flood mitigation technique, which in turn created a supply of sand for construction.

Local councils’ regular sand extraction created affordable sand, but as demand for the material has increased within the market, the price has expanded.

Other issues have also been key to the shortage. Growing environmental concerns and pressure from activist groups about river and land based extraction are some aspects, while the AQA has highlighted delayed resource consents and the new National Policy Statements on Highly Productive Land and Indigenous Biodiversity as factors faced within the quarrying sector. According to AQA, one third of current consents are being impacted by these Policy Statements.

“Unless there is urgent action to allow resource consents to proceed and resolve issues relating to extraction off the coast near Mangawhai, construction projects across the upper North Island will suffer delays waiting for sand and concrete,” Scott said.

In the past, the Auckland City Council have rejected McCallum Bros’ resource consent application to extract two million cubic metres of sand over 35 years. The company was one of Auckland’s leading sand suppliers and indicated after the rejection in 2022 that it would impact the construction industry.

“Without this sand, the construction market could be hit with a major supply shock, seriously impacting housing, transport and other infrastructure developments,” McCallum Bros managing director Callum McCallum told RNZ.

“Sustainable extraction at Pakiri is the best solution not only because of the quality of the sand but also due to its ability to be delivered into the centre of Auckland in bulk by shipping. Up to half of the city’s construction sand requirements come from Pakiri.”

The company is currently waiting on an appeal to the Environment Court.

AQA chief executive Wayne Scott. Image: AQA

The shortfall in New Zealand follows several global bodies warning about a sand crisis. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called the global sand extraction rate “unsustainable” after its findings in a 2022 report. The report estimated that 50 billion tonnes of sand is used per year globally.

The United Nations group urged that sand be considered a “strategic resource” given its importance to construction and the environment. The report also considered an international standard on sand extraction among ten strategic recommendations.

“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 toward a circular economy,” Pascal Peduzzi, director of GRID-Geneva at UNEP, said at the time.

McCallum Bros commissioned a 2019 report prepared by Greg Akehurst as part of its resource consent hearing. The report stated that the construction boom in New Zealand would require “significant” amounts of sand.

The report stated, “The majority of this investment requires significant volumes of concrete and, therefore, significant volumes of sand.”

“Sand is a low-value, high-transport-cost item that needs to be sourced close to final use; sources in the south should be used by southern developments, while developments in the centre and north should be supplied by the northern sand.”

A report from Sapere Research Group showed that obtaining resource consent had increased in cost by 70 per cent and that the timeline had nearly doubled by 2021.

“The results of this study are quite concerning,” New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga chief executive Ross Copland said at the time.

“To see annual consent costs escalating by half a billion dollars since 2014 is evidence of the ‘arms race’ of experts we have seen unfolding – with council planners demanding that infrastructure providers pay for as many expert reports, peer reviews and independent studies as they deem necessary.

“Worst of all, the system disproportionately penalises smaller communities and projects.”

Part of the solution to overcome the sand shortfall is manufactured sand, which is undergoing significant development in New Zealand.

The country has been carefully watching across the Tasman to see Australia’s efforts with manufactured sand. Initial theories seem to be that manufactured sand has good qualities for concrete but can be dearer than natural sand due to the production process.

“We could see an upward shift in the price of sand, which is the experience in countries that have increased the percentage of manufactured sand they use,” Scott said.

“I don’t think there’s a big grasp on that … when governments and local authorities talk about infrastructure, they talk in big numbers, in billions of dollars. I think everyone is numb to the impact of cost increases across the supply chain.

“They seem to be numb to the impacts of localised supply; the price of aggregate sand doubles when you cart it 30 kilometres, so you don’t have to be too far away for it to have a huge impact.”

 

New Zealand’s aggregate producers in the North Island have responded with initial investments in manufactured sand equipment. While manufactured sand is produced in small quantities already, Kaipara Limited introduced its manufactured sand plant in April, which is understood to be the first at-scale operation of its kind in the country.

While manufactured sand is more commonly used in overseas markets like China and Japan, Kaipara Ltd. has invested around $12 million in its manufactured sand plant, according to reports. The company aims to produce up to 300,000 tonnes of sand per annum.

Scott said he believes governments and local authorities need to have serious conversations about the role of quarrying going forward.

It is a view shared by others around the sector, including Copland, who has previously expressed a similar view about the need to take a long-term view of projects and resources.

“There are a lot of things that no one wants to talk about, and one of them is the aggregate story. We want houses and development, but where is the stuff going to come from to do it?” Scott said.

“If you don’t want it in your backyard, where are you going to get it from, and what is it going to cost? Let’s have those conversations with the public.

“Here in New Zealand and, having lived in Australia, we don’t tend to have those adult conversations with the public … but if they see the impact of carting materials in, maybe they might see the value of having a quarry nearby.”