- The world uses 50 billion metric tons of sand annually.
- Sand is a key ingredient in all concrete and glass production.
- There are already ongoing reports of a mafia-style black market for sand.
The world is in crisis yet again. This time around, it’s a sand shortage.
The most-extracted solid material in the world, and second-most used global resource behind water, sand is an unregulated material used extensively in nearly every construction project on Earth. And with 50 billion metric tons consumed annually—enough to build an 88-foot-tall, 88-foot-wide wall around the world—our sand depletion is on the rise, and a completely unregulated rise at that.
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Last week, the Kenya-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a new report with recommendations for avoiding a sand-shortage crisis. This summary follows a 2019 UNEP awareness report in which the organization says the sand crisis has been “overlooked.”
“To achieve sustainable development, we need to drastically change the way we produce, build and consume products, infrastructures, and services,” Pascal Peduzzi, the UNEP coordinator for the sand report writes. “Our sand resources are not infinite, and we need to use them wisely. 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.”
Sand is seemingly everywhere—under our feet, in the walls around us, and, increasingly, in our pockets. The most important ingredient for making concrete, by percentage? Sand. What’s glass? Melted sand. What’s the backbone of silicon, obviously a major player in the tech industry and in putting mobile devices in your hand and pocket? Sand. As a resulty, the world’s demand for sand has started to strip riverbeds and beaches bare. A 2017 NPR report even says we’re ripping up forests and farmlands just to get to more sand.
Naturally occurring over thousands of years—if not hundreds of thousands of years, most sand originates in the mountains and forms as rivers bring it downstream toward oceans. Sure, head to beaches across the world to feel the sand between your toes, but sand does more than delight beachgoers and build cities. Sand also performs key environmental roles; it is a major factor in protecting from storm surges, ensuring healthy natural habitats for a variety of species, and protecting against erosion.
The sand world is an unregulated one, so when sand is pulled from sensitive areas, it distresses biodiversity and creates additional environmental risks that can turn into physical threats. UNEP wants to see an international standard for extracting sand from marine environments, and calls for a central authority to track global sand use while promoting other materials. Officials want incentives for construction projects that ditch sand and instead use crushed rock, recycled construction and demolition material, or ore-sand, a mining byproduct—the three main alternatives to natural sand.
Of course, nothing’s purer—or cheaper—than natural sand. And that has led to a sand underworld, says Vince Beiser on NPR. “Organized crime has taken over the sand business,” he says. “And they do what mafias do everywhere. They bribe police. They bribe cops. And if you really get in their way, they will kill you.”
As the developing world grows, so does the sand business. Places such as India, Indonesia, China, and more have the most issues, Beiser says, even as China uses more sand than any other nation at roughly half of the world’s overall sand use. Small islands have been mined away in Southeast Asia just for their sand.
Sand feeds the materials that build a growing world. The sand crisis is here, and it is not going anywhere.
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