Diminishing supplies of sand and a booming construction business have combined to create environmental problems and a thriving black market
Take a stroll along the beach and you might find the next sentence shocking. The world is facing a critical shortage of sand. Surely with all of the sand-covered coastline in the world (356,000 km according to the World Factbook), not to mention massive sandy deserts such as the Sahara (the world’s largest at 8.6 million sq. km), there is no way the world could be running out of sand, right? Not exactly.
Humans have found countless uses for sand, including concrete for construction, glass, electronics, even man-made islands, and the need only continues to grow. Add to this the fact that sand literally takes ages to form — as mountains are eroded and boulders become rocks which are beaten by gravity, wind, and water until they’re finally grains of sand — and you have the perfect equation for a looming shortage.
A Concrete Problem
Concrete is the most-used man-made material in the world, with about 10 billion tonnes produced each year. Construction booms in parts of the United States, China, and India have only increased the need for concrete — and, in turn, sand.
While there are indeed sand-filled deserts that make up one-third of Earth’s land, concrete requires a very specific type of sand. Sand found in the desert is too fine and smooth to make the chemical connections necessary for concrete. On the other hand, sand found in river beds is mostly made of harder quartz and is more uniformly shaped by running water, allowing it to bond well with the cement in concrete.
Sand mining has thus become a huge industry, with tonnes of sand being dredged out of riverbeds and seashores to feed the industrial world’s appetite for concrete and construction. As coastlines and rivers are stripped, further problems have developed.
Stripping the coastline and riverbeds of sand is certainly not without ecological consequences. As sand mining has grown exponentially in India over the past decade, crops near some of the mining efforts have felt the brunt of the effects as extraordinary amounts of dust in the air prevented them from growing. Unchecked sand mining has the propensity of making areas ripe for the spread of disease, eroding the coast, and destroying coral reefs and entire ecosystems.
Such a problem, however, seems to pale in comparison to what has happened to islands that mine for sand too aggressively. In Indonesia, five islands in Jakarta Bay have eroded into the sea after being excessively mined.
Islands that don’t completely vanish are left more vulnerable to natural disasters, as was the case with Sri Lanka. The effects of the devastating 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami were exacerbated by sand mining. Without beaches and sandbars, there was nothing to prevent the waves from wreaking complete havoc.
The sand shortage, and our dependence on concrete, is not simply an environmental concern, it’s also a sociological concern. As sand for concrete becomes increasingly scarce and more restrictions and regulations are put in place to protect the environment, the number of illegal mining companies has increased — giving birth to a new breed of criminals in “sand mafias.”
Operating in a bloody fashion similar to organized criminals in movies such as The Godfather, sand mafias operate outside the law, paying off or intimidating officials, stealing sand and selling it on the black market, and killing those who get in their way. Morocco, Malaysia, India, Jamaica, and other countries across the globe are seeing a spike in crime related to sand mafias killing police, government officials, and civilians, illegally mining and, at times, even stealing entire river beds of sand.
As the need for sand in the East and Middle East continues to rise, Australian mining companies such as GMA Garnet have begun exporting sand to countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This can work in certain areas, but the cost of transporting heavy sand makes it hard to profit when shipping sand too far.
Recycling old concrete is another possible solution to the sand shortage, with companies such as the Delta Group making efforts to reclaim some of the materials used in demolished buildings. However, with much of the construction being done in emerging nations, there often isn’t enough material from existing buildings to reclaim.
Another attempt at a solution to the lack of sand to meet the global construction boom comes courtesy of researchers at the Imperial College of London. The team has found a way to use desert sand in building, something which was, until now, not possible. Their material, Finite, is a new composite that consists of desert sand and “other abundant fine powders” and can be used to build structures just as durable as those made of bricks or concrete.
Not only is Finite made of desert sand, it also has half the carbon footprint of concrete and can be remoulded for multiple uses during its life cycle.
Building a Future
Clearly, the need for concrete is not going to disappear anytime soon, so looking into innovative ways of building and saving or reusing concrete is of utmost importance. While Finite holds promise, not all manufactured sand is cost-effective for building. Due to its weight and the cost of shipping, most man-made sand is only used within a 50-mile radius of where it’s made.
Whether we find new materials for construction or new ways of obtaining the sand needed for concrete, glass, and other uses, the global sand shortage is causing those in the materials and construction sectors to think outside the box.