Are We Running Out of Sand?

Sand is one of those natural materials that we take for granted; it seems so abundant that we could never run out of it. Both natural building and conventional building rely on sand for many aspects of construction. It is an essential component of adobe, cob, rammed earth, earthen plaster, stucco and concrete. It is also essential to the manufacture of glass, computers, asphalt, and many roofing materials.

In his book The World in a Grain, journalist Vince Beiser calls sand “the most important solid substance on Earth.” It’s made of loose grains of any hard material between 2 and 0.0625 millimeters (a bit larger than the width of a human hair); anything smaller is considered silt, anything larger, gravel. Nearly 70% of all sand grains on Earth are made of quartz, a form of silicon dioxide or silica. The grains result from erosion or decomposition, both physically and chemically. According to Beiser, humans use about 50 billion tons of sand each year, enough to cover the entire state of California.

There are many different types of sand. Construction sand is hard with angular grains, and is usually found at riverbeds, beaches and quarries. Marine sand is similar to construction sand, but the salt needs to be washed away before use. Silica, or industrial sand, is mainly used for glass making.  High purity quartz, or “elite” sand is the kind used for computer chips. Desert sand is not very useful for construction because the grains are eroded to be rounded and slippery.

According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, sand mining is the world’s largest mining endeavor, responsible for 85% of all mineral extraction. This mining alters river flow, erodes riverbanks, dries up tributaries, lowers water tables, drains wetlands, disrupts habitats, removes islands, and makes communities more vulnerable to floods, storm surges and tsunami damage.

A 2019 United Nations Environment Program report on the sustainability of sand suggested that we should avoid unnecessary natural sand consumption in construction (over-building and over-designing), use alternative materials to replace natural sand in construction (recycled ash from burned solid waste, for example), and reduce sand extraction effects with existing standards and best practices.

Sand is in such high demand that many operations around the world are actually controlled by the “sand mafia.” Beiser notes that violent organizations have sprung up in Kenya, Indonesia, Gambia, Jamaica, Nigeria and other nations where people are murdered for control of the sand market. In India, the black market trade is worth an estimated $2.3 billion.

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