Even far from any beaches or deserts, our lives are dominated by sand.
Sand is used in an incredible amount of modern applications, including glass, concrete, asphalt and silicon chips used in electronics. It’s downright amazing what we can do with sand today. Unfortunately, our thirst for sand has reached damaging levels. It is estimated that we use more than 50 billion tons of sand per year, mostly in the construction of buildings, roads and other urban developments.
If we all had an equal hand in the consumption of this sand, that would mean that each person would use more than 14,400 pounds each year. By weight, it’s the most excavated product in the world, and is our second-most used natural resource.
But where do we get all that sand? It turns out that much of the sand we need can’t just be scooped out of the Sahara. This is because when it comes to construction, not all sand is created equal. Sand’s composition – whether it’s weathered quartz and other stones from mountains, or pulverized shells from ocean dwellers – determines the type of projects it can be used for.
Quartz sand is the primary ingredient for glass and computer chips, for example. Concrete and asphalt, on the other hand, don’t rely on the type of sand as much as it’s physical condition. In order to allow for a proper amount of adhesion in construction projects, concrete requires sand that is very angular and rough.
Desert sand, which is typically created by and exposed to seasonal winds, tends to be finely polished and smooth to a fault. This makes it unusable for concrete and asphalt.
Sand from aquatic origins is generally much more angular and pitted, allowing for easy cohesion when combined with other ingredients. This type of sand is most easily harvested from river beds, ancient sediment deposits or even right off the shore (as was seen in Jamaica in 2008 when an entire beach was stolen from a resort by thieves).
While the planet has undoubtedly built up a healthy sand supply over the billions of years it has been weathering away, the rate that it is being used currently is far from sustainable.
Depending on the surrounding rocks and other geological features, the sand in every area tends to be unique in its composition. This can lead to situations where an industry relies on small, overworked areas for the sand they need.
Woodlands and farms in Wisconsin sit atop sandstone reserves of pristine quartz sand, for example, and are routinely destroyed in order to feed the need of construction projects and fracking.
Sand mining for concrete in China has been kicked into high gear for years, and it has unfortunately taken a heavy toll. Systematic dredging of the Yangtze River until there was no sand left has led to the extinction of a local dolphin species, likely along with countless others. As rivers are depleted of sand, it also makes them more prone to flooding.
This can be seen in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, which is currently losing over a football field of land a day to rising water levels. Extensive sand mining is believed to be contributing to this rapid loss.
Destructive sand gathering processes like these are actually very common today, and even in countries that make it illegal to mine sand, criminal organizations sometimes step in to try and get some profitable ill-gotten grit.
As populations continue to rise in the future, we will need to rethink both our methods of sand harvesting and city construction planning in order to try and tackle this growing problem before it gets any worse.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.