The World Is Running Out of Sand

Stuck in summer traffic t’other day, on pops an NPR segment on a global shortage of sand. Yeah right! I thought. You should see our vacation rental properties on a busy turnover day. Recycle that and you’ve solved your sand shortage.  35 minutes later my mind was changed. Sand, there’s more to it. Read on for illumination that will make you the hit of summer BBQ conversation…

Rehoboth Beach Vacation Rentals

This is what sand mining looks like in China. It undermines (literally) river beds and building foundations

The world is facing a shortage of sand that will affect our lives beyond flip flops and seagulls. Turns out sand is a natural resource that we’re using most of after air and water. Sand is found in concrete, glass, silicon chips in our computers and mobile devices, the elastic band in your underwear, and my favorite, asphalt. Who doesn’t like their asphalt?

Some interesting facts from this NPR article:

  • There are many types of sand and different grain types determine their usage. Quartz rock sand that is mined from deposits and dredged from river beds is the sand most used since it is weathered by water creating sharp, angular grains. Desert sand – no good for construction. It’s weathered by wind and this makes the grains round and very difficult to adhere in concrete and glass usage.
  • Sand miners look to the banks of local rivers and coastlines, and this brings a whole host of environmental and human problems.
  • Sand extraction in Kenya has been linked with damage to coral reefs, while in India it threatens critically endangered crocodiles and in Indonesia islands have literally vanished due to excessive mining.
  • Sand extraction causes coastal erosion, destroys ecosystems, creates environments that facilitate disease transmission, and even sows the seeds for natural disasters.
  • In Vietnam, villages have collapsed into rivers after sand mining along river banks.
  • Some countries have banned the export of sand.
  • India has a deadly, thriving sand mafia. In the past year there have been hundreds of people murdered because of conflicts between sand mafias.
  • In Sri Lanka, research has revealed that intensive sand mining prior to the 2004 tsunami made the waves more devastating than they otherwise would have been. The beaches disappeared, and so there was no natural barrier stopping the flooding.
  • A few years ago, an entire beach in a remote area of Jamaica vanished. Thieves dug up hundreds of tons of sand and hauled it away in dump trucks in the middle of the night. The sand–white, powdery, Caribbean sand–was worth about a million dollars.
  • The United Nations Environment Programme estimated that in 2012 the world used nearly 30 billion tons of these materials just to make concrete – enough to construct a wall 27m high by 27m wide around the equator.
  • The trade value of sand has increased by almost six fold in the last 25 years. In the US alone, where sand production has increased by 24 per cent in the past five years, the sand industry is worth nearly $9bn (£6.7bn).
  • Singapore, has become by far the world’s largest importer of sand, adding 130 square kilometres to its land area over a 40 year period. The island nation has achieved this by dumping millions of tons of sand into the ocean.
  • It takes on average 200 tons of sand to build a house, while a hospital uses 3,000 tons, and a mile of a highway requires 15,000 tons.

While options for sand alternatives are springing up, they may not be entirely feasible for most construction uses, or may end up being as great an environmental issue as sand mining. A quote from the article is useful to close with. Since sand is a natural resource, if we’re over using it causing environmental collapse, then we have to find a balance of usage. Comments?

Here is a link to the fascinating book The World In a Grain by journalist Vince Beiser whose research brought this sandy issue to light