Built on Sand: The Global Overexploitation of a Resource That’s Rarer Than You Think

Due to the huge demand for sand in manufacture and construction, it's becoming scarcer than many realise.

Oil, precious metals, water: highly sought-after natural resources, as we all know. But in reality, one of the most in demand resources is something that seems to be practically everywhere, but is actually at risk of running out all together: sand.

Author Laura Wagener:

Translation Laura Wagener, 08.29.17

From trains’ brakes to computer chips and credit cards, toothpaste, cleaning products and solar panels – sand is used to make things that we come across in all areas of our lives – all without us even noticing. Our lives pretty much are built on sand. And nowhere does that ring more true than in the construction industry. Windows, concrete, stone floors – all of these are largely made up of sand. Reinforced concrete, often used in construction is made up of one third cement and two thirds sand. For a medium-sized house that means approximately 200 tons of sand is needed.

The issue here: sand is obviously naturally available in huge quantities. and as rocks naturally weather, is constantly being produced. But the construction boom – in the Arab states, Singapore and China, for example – means that there is a huge demand for massive amounts of the golden grain. And once its been mixed to become concrete, the sand can no longer be removed and used again – it’s a one-way undoable process.

How and Why Sand is Running Out

According to estimates by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), between 47 and 59 billion tons of sand and gravel are being mined each year to meet demand. Most of that sand is hauled from the ocean floor or taken from beaches around the world. Desert sand is plentiful, but due to the fineness of the grains not suitable for using in manufacture – although it’s sometimes used to bulk up sinking beaches. That’s just one of the many consequences of our growing demand for the little grains: riverbeds are changing and beaches are being eroded, natural biodiversity is suffering from reduced marine life, in Indonesia whole islands have disappeared following excessing sand mining which caused the ground to sink, and the livelihood of fishermen is being destroyed.

Papa Pic Today only 50% of sand that flows from land to sea ends up in the ocean. The rest is harvested in rivers for use in industry.

Despite the existence of huge natural stocks of sand, we have already seen signs that our demand will outstrip natural supplies within the foreseeable future. Many countries, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, have recognised that the sand supply situation is critical and have banned its export. The diminishing availability of the resource has led to a huge leap in price in the past decades: while a ton of imported sand cost an average of three dollars per ton around the year 2000, today the price is roughly 60 dollars per ton.

It’s therefore not surprising that the sand trade is characterised by overexploitation, smuggling and mafia-style organisations. Particularly in developing countries, sand is being illegally mined and sold on the black market.

Sustainable Alternatives to Sand

Faced with this situation it’s time to think about more sustainable alternatives – especially something that could be used in the construction industry. Recent winners of the GreenTec Awards in the category of “Recycling & Resources by Veolia” was the startup Neocomp. They’ve come up with a new way of recycling the rotor blades of wind turbines. Finding a way to recycle the plastic pieces – that are strengthened with glass fibres – was always an issue in the wind industry, because existing recycling methods were always complex and expensive.

Neocomp has come up with a new procedure to crush the blades and separate out the different elements. The glass-reinforced plastic is processed in such a way that it can subsequently be used in the cement industry as a sand replacement. This cement can then be used as normal – in the foundations of new wind turbines for example – completely without the use of sand dredged up from the ocean floor.

We recommend the documentary film Sand Wars by the French director Denis Delestrac for an even closer look at the building boom and the illegal sand trade.

This is a translation by Marisa Pettit of the original article which first appeared on RESET’s German-language site.

The DIY Flat Pack House (Instructions Included)

Want to know how to make your own house using materials from your local hardware store, a CNC milling machine and a little bit of elbow grease? Then WikiHouse might be just the thing for you.

Kasita’s Minimalist Design for Smart, Compact and Affordable Housing

Sprawling urbanisation and sky rocketing house prices are major issues in cities around the world. Kasita is a new type of housing and multi-unit development model that provides technologically advanced, environmentally friendly and economical housing for urban citizens.

Ancient Earth Roofing Technique Provides Sustainable Housing in Sub-Saharan Regions

An ancient construction method is providing affordable and sustainable housing to people in sub-Saharan regions. Its resurgence has the potential to not just help those lacking resources to build themselves a decent and affordable home, but thanks to new skills and training, it's also giving them a path out of poverty.

Husk to Home: Building Houses From Rice in the Philippines

A team of engineers is set to start building houses in the Philippines using materials from an unexpected source – the country’s abundant supply of rice. Husk to Home have developed boards made from discarded husks and are to start using them to create long-lasting, sustainable, and eco-friendly homes.

RangerBot: The Robot That’s Reviving the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is dead. At least, that's what one article reported a month ago. And the whole of the internet seemed to buy it. Now, as it turns out, that wasn't quite true. The reef isn't in great shape, but it's not breathed its last breath yet, and now thanks to new robotic technologies, it might never have to.

A Resource from the Sea We’d Like to See More Of

Last June, the first offshore seaweed harvest in the Dutch Northsea yielded just 15 kilograms. But this little amount of fast-growing algae could be very promising for the European seaweed industry, which is preparing to scale up. What are the future prospects of seaweed farming and will they be sustainable?