Essential Materials for City Construction
From the buildings around us to the sidewalks we walk on, sand, steel, and cement are an important foundation for all urbanization. Every year, the world produces an immense amount of all three materials in order to supply the continuous construction of human-built environments around the world.
Using data from the U.S. Geological Survey, this visualization shows the steel, sand, and cement produced in 2020, to help put in perspective the amount of raw materials we produce and ultimately consume every year.
The Concrete Facts of Cement
Cement is the indispensable glue that binds together the materials that make up concrete highways, sidewalks, and buildings.
With concrete being the world’s most consumed material (beaten only by water), it’s no wonder that the world produced 4.1 billion tonnes of cement in 2020.
2020 Cement Production by Country
|Rank||Country||Cement Production (in million tonnes)|
|#4||🇺🇸 United States||90|
|#12||🇰🇷 South Korea||50|
While cement-based concrete has a variety of benefits like being fire-proof, hydrographic, and frost-resistant, the IEA estimates that in 2019 the cement sector emitted 2.4 GtCO2, which accounted for 7% of global CO2 emissions. The production of concrete also requires high amounts of water, with calculations from 2012 finding that the concrete industry’s water withdrawals made up 9% of all industry water withdrawals (1.7% of total global water withdrawal).
To combat high carbon emissions and water consumption in concrete production, Swedish power company Vattenfall has developed a concrete mix which reduces the amount of cement needed, and as a result cuts down CO2 emissions by around 25%. Shifting the world’s concrete production to this new method could be the first step in greatly reducing cement and concrete’s impact on the environment.
Steel Recyclability Steals the Show
While cement is the most commonly used material in the world, steel is the most commonly used metal. With 1.8 billion tonnes produced last year, steel fulfills a variety of structural and construction needs, along with being an essential material for the production of vehicles, mechanical equipment, and domestic appliances.
One of steel’s greatest strengths is its ability to be infinitely recycled, making it the most recycled material in the world with new steel products containing an average of 30% recycled steel. While the world produced 1.8 billion tonnes of steel in 2020, since 1900 the steel industry has recycled over 25 billion tonnes of steel scrap, reducing iron ore and coal consumption by 35 billion and 18 billion tonnes respectively.
Global Steel Recovery Rates by Sector
|Sector||Steel Recovery Rate|
|Electrical and domestic appliances||50%|
Source: World Steel Association
The steel industry is also highly aware of reducing its environmental impact, with steel plants reusing the heat and electricity from process gases to provide between 60-100% of the plant’s electricity requirements. Along with this, ~90% of water used by the steel industry is returned to the source after being cleaned and cooled.
Yet steel production still emits around two tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of steel produced, largely due to the majority of the world’s steel production taking place in China’s coal-reliant plants. However, fossil-free steel is on the horizon, with carmaker Volvo partnering with the Swedish steelmakers SSAB to explore the development of fossil-free steel for the automotive industry.
More than Beaches
Completing the trio of essential city-building materials is industrial sand and gravel, with 265 million tonnes of the material produced in 2020. Primarily composed of quartz, feldspar, and other minerals and rock fragments, industrial sand and gravel is also called silica sand or quartz sand.
“It’s actually the most important solid substance in the world because without sand, we have no modern civilization.”
– Vince Beiser
While steel and cement are opaquely visible in their end products in our cities, industrial sand and gravel primarily makes up the transparent glass walls and windows of our world. It also serves essential functions as foundry sand, forming molds and patterns for various metal castings.
Just like steel and cement, industrial sand and gravel is an essential building block of the cities we live in. As the world continues its shift towards reducing carbon emissions, it is clear that these essential materials cannot be replaced, and rather must be improved upon.
Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth
The amount of human-made (or anthropogenic) mass, has now exceeded the weight of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, and plants.
Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth
The world is not getting any bigger but the human population continues to grow, consuming more and more resources and altering the very environment we rely on.
In 2020, the amount of human-made mass, or anthropogenic mass, exceeded for the first time the dry weight (except for water and fluids) of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms.
In this infographic based on a study published in Nature, we break down the composition of all human-made materials and the rate of their production.
A Man-made Planet
Anthropogenic mass is defined as the mass embedded in inanimate solid objects made by humans that have not been demolished or taken out of service—which is separately defined as anthropogenic mass waste.
Over the past century or so, human-made mass has increased rapidly, doubling approximately every 20 years. The collective mass of these materials has gone from 3% of the world’s biomass in 1900 to being on par with it today.
While we often overlook the presence of raw materials, they are what make the modern economy possible. To build roads, houses, buildings, printer paper, coffee mugs, computers, and all other human-made things, it requires billions of tons of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, wood, and agricultural products.
The rate of accumulation for anthropogenic mass has now reached 30 gigatons (Gt)—equivalent to 30 billion metric tons—per year, based on the average for the past five years. This corresponds to each person on the globe producing more than his or her body weight in anthropogenic mass every week.
At the top of the list is concrete. Used for building and infrastructure, concrete is the second most used substance in the world, after water.
|Human-Made Mass||Description||1900 (mass/Gt)||1940 (mass/Gt)||1980 (mass/Gt)||2020 (mass/Gt)|
|Concrete||Used for building and infrastructure, including cement, gravel and sand||2||10||86||549|
|Aggregates||Gravel and sand, mainly used as bedding for roads and buildings||17||30||135||386|
|Bricks||Mostly composed of clay and used for constructions||11||16||28||92|
|Asphalt||Bitumen, gravel and sand, used mainly for road construction/pavement||0||1||22||65|
|Metals||Mostly iron/steel, aluminum and copper||1||3||13||39|
|Other||Solid wood products, paper/paperboard, container and flat glass and plastic||4||6||11||23|
Bricks and aggregates like gravel and sand also represent a big part of human-made mass.
Although small compared to other materials in our list, the mass of plastic we’ve made is greater than the overall mass of all terrestrial and marine animals combined.
As the rate of growth of human-made mass continues to accelerate, it could become triple the total amount of global living biomass by 2040.
Can We Work It Out?
While the mass of humans is only about 0.01% of all biomass, our impact is like no other form of life on Earth. We are one of the few species that can alter the environment to the point of affecting all life.
At the current pace, the reserves of some materials like fossil fuels and minerals could run out in less than 100 years. As a result, prospectors are widening their search as they seek fresh sources of raw materials, exploring places like the Arctic, the deep sea, and even asteroids.
As the world population continues to increase, so does the pressure on the natural environment. It is an unavoidable fact that consumption will increase, but in an era of net-zero policies and carbon credits, accounting for the human impact on the environment will be more important than ever.
The Biggest Mining Companies in the World in 2021
The graphic takes a look at the world’s largest mining companies by market capitalization and the metals they produce.
Ranked: The Top 20 Mining Companies
Mining companies have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic in excellent financial and operational shape and the forecast is even brighter as the economy recovers.
The market is expected to reach a value of nearly $1.86 trillion by 2022, with the increasing demand for minerals for power generation and renewables technology.
In the graphic above, we show the world’s top companies by market capitalization as of June 22, 2021, and the metals they mine.
The Bottom Line: From Smartphones to Food
From roads, hospitals, automobiles, houses, computers, satellites, and even fertilizer for crops, mining provides many of the materials we interact with every day. Copper, iron, rare earth metals, aluminum, and phosphate are just a handful of the mined materials that make modern life and feed the bottom line for mining companies.
The two biggest by market capitalization, BHP ($179B) and Rio Tinto ($132B), both produce a range of commodities, mainly iron ore and copper. The next on the list is also the biggest company in Brazil, Vale ($112B). The miner is the world’s largest producer of iron ore and pellets (small balls of iron ore) used to manufacture steel.
|Company||Market Cap (USD)||Country||Main Mining Activity|
|BHP||$179B||🇦🇺 Australia||iron ore, copper, coal|
|Rio Tinto||$132B||🇦🇺 Australia||iron ore, aluminum, copper|
|Vale||$112B||🇧🇷 Brazil||iron ore, nickel|
|Glencore||$55B||🇨🇭 Switzerland||copper, cobalt, zinc, nickel|
|Norilsk Nickel||$54B||🇷🇺 Russia||palladium, nickel|
|Freeport-McMoRan||$52B||🇺🇸 United States||copper|
|Anglo American||$52B||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||diamonds, copper, platinum, iron ore, coal|
|Fortescue Metals||$51B||🇦🇺 Australia||iron ore|
|Newmont Goldcorp||$50B||🇺🇸 United States||gold|
|Southern Copper||$47B||🇺🇸 United States||copper|
|Zijin Mining Group||$38B||🇨🇳 China||gold, copper|
|Barrick Gold||$37B||🇨🇦 Canada||gold|
|Anglo American Platinum||$28B||🇿🇦 South Africa||platinum, palladium, rhodium|
|Ganfeng Lithium||$24B||🇨🇳 China||lithium|
|Wheaton Precious Metals||$20B||🇨🇦 Canada||gold, silver, palladium, cobalt|
|Antofagasta||$19B||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||copper|
|Ma’aden||$18B||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||gold|
A $57 billion gap separates the top 3 from the rest of the group. In fourth place comes Glencore ($55B) with its mixed operations of trading and mining metals, agricultural products, and oil and gas.
The automotive industry is a big consumer of metals, which explains Norilsk Nickel’s ($54B) fifth place. The company, owned by the wealthiest man in Russia, is the world’s biggest producer of palladium, used in vehicles’ catalytic converters.
Miners also serve the luxury market, with precious metals like gold, silver, and gemstones. Number six on the list, Anglo American ($52B) is one of the world’s leading diamond companies.
In terms of countries, Canada leads the ranking with 4 miners on the list. The United States and Australia come next with 3 companies each.
Charging and Changing the Future of Mining Companies
The United States, Europe, and Asia are making big investments in electrification and power generation. By 2024, almost 33% of the world’s electricity is forecast to come from renewables.
This shift from fossil fuels will require a lot of copper, cobalt, and lithium for batteries. Mining companies are in a position to capitalize as the market expands.
For example, no. 17 in the list, China’s Ganfeng Lithium, the world’s third-largest producer of lithium chemicals for batteries, saw its market capitalization grow more than 25% in 2021.
The energy transition is just beginning, and the materials used in building a more sustainable future will also build up the largest mining companies of tomorrow.
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