The Sand Trap

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Did you know it takes more than a hundred tons of sand (and gravel, and crushed stone) to build an average American house—twice that much if you count the section of road that runs in front of it? Or that constructing one lane of an interstate highway consumes 38,000 tons of sand per mile? Or that China, which is rapidly expanding its roadway system, plans to have more than three times the road-miles of the entire American interstate system in place by 2030?

These tidbits, and dozens more uses for sand, come from an article by David Owen in the May 29 issue of the New Yorker. His point is not just that we use more sand than is readily available, but that the specific type of sand needed for any particular application might not be obtainable locally. The article describes how one company, which provides the sand for major beach volleyball events around the world, sent five shiploads of the stuff from a mine in Turkey near the Syrian border to Azerbaijan for the 2015 European Games. It had to go on a circuitous route by ship—“across the Mediterranean, up the Aegean, through the Bosporus, across the Black Sea, and into Sochi” before proceeding by rail—because trucking it through Syria and Iraq was considered too dangerous. The same company has also supplied sand for many other beach volleyball events, including transporting great quantities from Belgium for the Athens Olympic Games. Beach volleyball, it seems, requires an extremely specific type of sand.

If nothing else, the article provides a rather exhaustive account of the way sand is categorized, including grain size, composition (much of the world’s beach sand now includes, besides rock and shell particles, a significant amount of plastic), and grain shape—from smooth to sub-rounded to sub-angular to sharp. What works in one application, such as roadbuilding or beach nourishment or “horse-footing” for equestrian events, won’t work for many others. In the desert of Dubai—one place in the world you’d expect to have an abundance of sand—material for the sand traps on newly constructed golf courses has to be imported. The wind-eroded sand that occurs there naturally has such rounded grains that the golf balls sink right in and disappear. Sand for the bunkers of a recently built course there came from North Carolina.

The ways in which we’re obtaining the sand, besides being increasingly cost-prohibitive, are causing environmental problems of their own. Sand used for beach nourishment is often the byproduct of dredging operations to keep harbors and shipping channels clear, but when those activities don’t provide enough raw material, new dredging operations sometimes destroy coral reefs and choke out other marine life. For some very specialized applications—the horse-footing sand, for instance—manufacturers crush marble and other types of stone.

Owen is not the first to suggest that there’s an overall shortage of sand in the world. A year ago I mentioned this New York Times article by Vince Beiser, who’s written an entire book on the subject.

Have you run into problems finding the right type of sand—or simply enough of it—for projects you’ve worked on?EC_bug_web

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