News & Politics

A Great Global Sand Shortage Is Upon Us

We can now add sand to the list of natural resources that are being depleted by modernity.

Business Insider reports that in Southern California alone 67% of the beaches will be gone by the year 2100. The article says that the problem is twofold. First, there is the almost ubiquity of sand in in things like glass (obviously), computer chips and even toothpaste. The second problem is that not all of the sand on the planet is usable.

Expert Vince Beiser explained the latter: “…we can’t use sand from the desert. Wind erosion makes the grains too round for most purposes. We need angular sand that interlocks like pieces to a puzzle. Like the sand generated from mountain rocks, pelted by rain, wind, and rivers for over 25 thousand years.”

Having just moved back to the Sonoran Desert I was quite perplexed until that was cleared up. I can assure all that there is still plenty of sand here.

Concrete — a fact of life in the modern world — is where a good portion of the needed marine sand is going. Three-quarters of concrete’s composition is sand, with lime, clay, and water making up the other 25%.

According to the article, it takes “on average 200 tons of sand” to build a house, while “a hospital uses 3,000 tons, and a mile of a highway requires 15,000 tons.”

So if we continue to want places to live, heal and drive we’re going to be going through a lot of sand.

Unsurprisingly, China is the world’s biggest consumer of sand, using it not only for roads and housing, but to build islands where there aren’t any. In a three-year (2011-2013) span China used “more concrete than the US did in the entire 20th century,” building “the equivalent to every highway, road bridge in the US. And the Hoover Dam.”

Governments are stepping in to slow down the mining of sand. Less law-abiding types saw the opportunity, however, and now a black market for sand has opened up. In fact, India’s “strongest criminal organization” is the “Sand Mafia.” The Sand Mafia exploits poverty-stricken people to dive for sand, working long hours for very little pay.

As with any of Earth’s finite resources, the story gets worse when population growth predictions are factored in. We are either going to have to alter consumption, or some genius is going to figure out how to make the tons of sand I’m sitting on useful.

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