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The Sand Industry in Switzerland : Guest blog by Natacha Reymond from Sand X

In the autumn semester of 2018, a group of students of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, worked intensely on the global sand crisis and the sand supply industry. A few of them chose to focus their research on Western Switzerland and looked at good and bad practices in the area.

The aim of the research was to understand what it meant for a particular zone to be classified as protected and what measures were taken to protect the environment from the sand industry. Information was gathered mainly through interviews with actors connected to the business.

Geologists, in charge of studying grounds before, during, and after the excavation, note that compensation measures need to be implemented in order to diminish the impact on the environment and fauna when accessing zones to excavate sand which have remained untouched by humans. These measures can include building a new hedge or recreating a pond, or in the case of La Gravière des Délices in Morges replanting the number of trees cut down.

Laws vary from one State to another. The State of Vaud is relatively responsible when giving permits to excavating companies. Also, there is a law which states that waste created from the related industry – excavation or construction – has to be disposed of in the State of Vaud itself. This opposed to, for example, their neighbour, the State of Geneva which allows the export of construction waste to landfills in neighbouring countries, making the business highly unsustainable.

The report Plan Directeur des Carrières 2014 written by the Directorate-General for Environment of the State of Vaud, references Switzerland’s sand extraction sites very well, whether they are land or lacustrine. In the Eastern part of the Lake of Geneva is, for example, a No-Go Zone due to migrating birds and amphibians, which need to be protected as the species are of national importance. However, all around this area is a sand extracting site held by a private enterprise, a well-known player in the lake and river sand excavation in Switzerland. According to different experts, sand could also be found in this particular protected area but it is not accessible (not even for geological studies) as long as it remains protected. This No-Go Zone could, however, be re-evaluated and be declassified should sand become a scarce resource in Switzerland.

This particular No-Go Zone is classified as such by the State of Vaud but the World Database of Protected Areas, which is globally used to classify protected areas, mentions a much broader area including the zones where sand is currently being extracted from. This shows the differences in knowledge and understanding of what classifies an area as protected and how to enforce it: in Switzerland, because the State is enforcing the classification of this particular zone, all actors have no choice but to respect it fully.

Unfortunately, although the State of Vaud has some good practices in terms of sand, Switzerland overall remains imperfect. As mentioned previously, Geneva, for example, does not hesitate to export construction waste to landfills in neighbouring countries and although this fact is not advertised, different witnesses have confirmed that some actors of the industry manage to certify the waste locally and sub-contract it to a Swiss enterprise who then deliver the waste to foreign landfills. Loopholes do exist in laws, and dishonest players always find cheaper, unsustainable options.

Moreover, Switzerland’s industry is disadvantaged when competing with neighbouring countries that are able to offer lower prices. Indeed, even cities in Switzerland do not encourage enough the practice of using “Swiss-made”: when calling for bids to construction companies, the Suisse Romande region (French-speaking Switzerland) is not allowed to exclude French businesses due to free-trade agreements with the EU. This even though the environment and local access to resources is emphasized in the region’s strategy for Agenda 2021. Due to their low prices, French companies bidding for Swiss contracts have higher chances of winning. Also, the industrial services require new natural gravel for the construction of the city’s pipelines. One can debate that cities should lead by example choosing local and recyclable materials.

Furthermore, the high price of Swiss and recycled sand, along with the strict legislation of sand excavation in Switzerland encourages illegal behaviour: an article from Le Temps explains the problem a particular Swiss State faces having most of its sand resources being totally restricted, it is bound to import sand from neighbouring Italy. These excavation sites are not always legal and accelerate the mountain erosion of the region, and also deeply disturb the nearby fauna.

Solutions do exist: companies are working towards making recycled concrete from the destruction of old buildings and making it available for a price close to new gravel, like GCM SA, and Terrabloc SA, which work on making bricks from construction waste. Although these bricks cannot yet be used for exterior walls due to their fragility against wind and rain, these new alternatives deserve to be used, encouraged and funded, because sand remains a finite resource.

Although sand extraction was not seen as a problem by all interviewees, they recognized the importance of having rules and regulations as well as permits in order for good practices to be put in place. The actors also emphasized the importance of the role of the State in regulating the industry and setting “best practices” by using recycled and local materials. Also, by sharing good practices as well as testimonials, leaders of the industry are encouraged to work towards a common objective: a safe sand excavation.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author/s and they do not necessarily reflect the views of SandStories