Urbanization is robbing the planet of sand

Sand is the most important material for the construction industry. Supplies are massive, but finite. Already today many coastlines and waterways are suffering from overexploitation at the hands of sand miners. But for now at least there is no good replacement for sand. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Sand mining is destroying coastlines and waterways, fuelling corruption and risking global shortages. (Image credit: MPCA Photos via Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

A crucial ingredient in concrete, glass and computer chips, sand is a pillar of the global economy.

But sand mining is unsustainable, wreaking costly and potentially deadly environmental damage, fuelling corruption and risking shortages that could slow growth, according to study published Thursday in the journal Science.

Sand reserves could run out

“Urbanization, especially in Asia, is booming. They need lots of sand for construction. There are a lot of things that use sand we don’t know about. Even energy development, fracking, needs sand,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, a study co-author and director of Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

“Something that’s getting larger and larger in the end could become depleted everywhere. Then we have another resource that is in huge demand but the supply will become more limited.”

Entitled “A looming tragedy of the sand commons,” the study found that sand miners extracted at least 11 billion tonnes for construction in 2010 alone. In the U.S., the nearly $9 billion sand industry has grown by 24 per cent in the last five years. The international sand trade has grown sixfold in the last quarter century.

Environment suffering at hands of sand miners

But a host of problems have sprouted as the industry has evolved.

Sand mining alters coastlines and waterways where conditions are already growing unpredictable due to climate change. It kills flora and fauna, fuels irresponsible building and funds criminal organizations. Gangs run the trade in India and Italy. Sand has also worsened diplomatic tensions. Singapore has clashed with Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia to maintain vital sand imports fuelling the city state’s building boom.

“Sand has an impact on the environment, an impact of biodiversity, social issues, social unrest,” said Liu, adding that he and his fellow researchers used ‘telecoupling’ or a mode of research that examines causes and effects over large distances, time periods, different fields and diverse economic sectors. “They are connected.”

Need for global regulations

Writing in the Conversation, Liu and his colleagues said their findings demonstrate why researchers and policymakers need to look more closely at sand in order to develop rules to govern the commodity.

“As long as national regulations are lightly enforced, harmful effects will continue to occur,” they argued. “We believe that the international community needs to develop a global strategy for sand governance, along with global and regional sand budgets. It is time to treat sand like a resource, on a par with clean air, biodiversity and other natural endowments that nations seek to manage for the future.”

Good replacement hard to find

Liu didn’t see a good replacement for sand.

“A substitute could be breaking stones into sand,” he said. “But that has consequences. You need energy to do that. When you use energy, you use carbon dioxide. You avoid one problem to create another problem.”

He thought recycling sand, developing new building methods that require less of the stuff, better housing policies that curb sand-gobbling construction and other measures could help humankind avoid a sand crisis in the future.

“We don’t say: ‘Don’t use sand’,” Liu said. “Reduce the use of sand without affecting human wellbeing.”

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