World hunger, racism, illnesses, war, and climate change. Everyone has heard of these world problems at some point, but there is one rising problem that has escaped media attention. The global sand crisis is a tragedy upon the horizon! It almost sounds as if the sand itself has become sentient and is taking over the world one grain at a time. Fortunately for everyone, this is not the case. As one may assume, there is an abundance of sand around the globe; it is one of the many minerals we take for granite in our everyday lives, but these crushed up grains of stone and sediment have become something of a hot commodity due to world urbanization. As a result, the amount of sand left has decreased to an extreme extent.
Sand is technically a non-renewable resource, as the minerals that make it up – small pieces of rock, shells, and the husks of marine life – do not regenerate at a pace that would be considered renewable. Sand is used in common construction materials such as concrete, glass, bricks, asphalt, and so much more. And get this! Deserts make up one third of the earth’s surface, but desert sand cannot be used for construction, glass, or computer chips, as the grains are too smooth and round to work how they need to. Yes, there is good and bad sand, who knew?
According to a (May 21, 2021) CBC news story, people produce 4.1 billion tons of cement annually. In construction alone, the world consumes about 40 to even 50 billion tons of sand, gravel, and crushed rock annually. Usage of sand has ramped up so much that it has seen an increase of three times the usage over the past decade. With the constant urbanization of countries around the world, and industrialized industries continuing to expand and conquer, little hope remains for the third most used mineral in the world.
So, what does this mean for sand? While it is next to impossible to track global sand usage down to the grain – there are a lot of them – and with the knowledge that sand cannot be replenished fast enough to keep up with this volume of usage, things are looking a little rocky for the future of sand.
Another massive issue with sand being mined so much is the effect it has on the environment. Sand is mined from seabeds, rivers, and beaches. This mining activity tears apart the habitat, leaving everything but the vital grains the area was built on to be exploited for profit. Since sand cannot be mined in deserts, it is mined from rivers, beaches, and the seabed. Animal habitats are destroyed, and riverbeds are disturbed and the flow of them change, sometimes causing flooding and more damage.
Not only is nature affected, but humans are too. A Sand mafia is a term commonly used for a group of people that acquire sand either without a permit or from other companies through criminal acts. It is difficult not to see the irony in sand mafias breaking the law and endangering people for a resource many would say has a value equivalent to dirt. In most cases though, mining without the correct permits is the most common case of sand mafias. As of right now, no sand mafias exist in North America. They are mostly found in China and India.
Even though there is an abundance of usage, and the resource is diminishing, sand can be saved. There are other ways to decrease our usage of sand, maybe enough to slow the usage to a point of stability. Using recycled concrete in construction is a step in the right direction. This way there will be much less sand wasted, and construction will become slightly greener too. There is also on-going research for a viable alternative to river and marine sand globally to assist in lowering usage in construction.
While some may not think much about sand, others love it. It is the third most used resource in the world next to air and water. As much as it seems in abundance, much like oil, there will eventually not be enough left. The high demand of this non-renewable resource causes criminal acts to be committed, and animal habitats to be threatened or destroyed. It is a crisis, not yet run its coarse.