What is the one resource the modern world uses more of than anything else except air and water? It’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s sand. And we’re running out of it.
As this New York Times op-ed piece points out, sand isn’t just for the desert; it’s part of our rapidly growing cities, from the concrete and glass we use for our buildings, to the asphalt roads that connect them together. Extracting sand is now a $70 billion industry worldwide. In just two years, from 2011 to 2013, China used more cement for concrete than the US used in the 20th century. “According to the United Nations Environment Program,” the article says, “in 2012 alone the world used enough concrete to build a wall 89 feet high and 89 feet wide around the Equator.”
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And not just any sand will do: That from rivers, floodplains, and beaches works better for construction than desert sand. The shape of the grains—which is important in construction—is more suitable when shaped by water than by wind. But the dredging operations needed to get at that ocean and riverine sand is leading to erosion of beaches, destruction of coral reefs and other aquatic habitats, and even undermining of existing infrastructure like bridges. In Indonesia, entire islands have disappeared. In other places, forests are being razed to get at the sand underneath.
Sand is generally cheap, but transporting it is expensive. Communities that try to curb environmental damage by preventing local sand mining have to import the sand from someplace else, raising the costs of new construction.
It’s hard to think of an alternative to sand, or of viable ways to conserve or recycle it. The author of the article, Vince Beiser, is writing a book about the global black market for sand, which he calls the world’s “most overlooked commodity.” We need to add sand to the list along with water, arable soil, and other scarce resources.