As we move through our skyscraper-filled cities, we lose sense of the one resource that makes all of this possible. Sand is the foundation of our roads, buildings and even advanced technologies. The global stock of useful sand is depleting rapidly, and there are no substitutes. Similar to water scarcity, solutions must come from innovative technologies and improved management.
- Geologists define sand not by composition but by size, as grains between 0.0625 and two millimeters across. In the industrial world, sand is called “aggregate,” which is the world’s second most heavily exploited natural resource after water. It is the main constituent of concrete (80%) and asphalt (94%).
- A UN report from 2014 titled “Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks” notes that the mining of sand “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates” and that “the amount being mined is increasing exponentially, mainly as a result of rapid economic growth in Asia.”
- In Connectography, Parag Khanna notes that sand has become a geopolitical weapon. Finding the right type of sand for the world’s construction boom (for example, due to size and shape, sand from the desert is useless) has meant dredging rivers and beaches, scraping the ocean floor, and shipping massive quantities across the world in a $70 billion annual market.
- Sand is widely used in products and processes (e.g. glass, cell-phone screens, computer chips, water-treatment facilities, oil and gas drillers, foundries).
- China’s development has consumed more sand in the previous four years than the United States used in the past century. In India, commercially useful sand is now so scarce that markets for it are dominated by “sand mafias”—criminal enterprises that sell material taken illegally from rivers and other sources. In the U.S., the fastest-growing uses of sand include the fortification of shorelines eroded by rising sea levels and more and more powerful ocean storms.
- By virtue of dumping vast quantities of sand into the sea, Singapore is now over 20% larger than it was when it became independent in 1965. China and Japan have reclaimed even greater swathes of land, and China has outraged global opinion by building artificial islands on disputed rocks in the South China Sea.
Connecting the Dots
Like water, sand is essential to the existence of society – even in an increasingly digital world. The icon of modern society, the skyscraper, is nearly completely made from sand: from the concrete of the building to the glass of the windows. At present, several global trends are rapidly increasing the exploitation of sand. Rapid urbanization requires largescale construction of roads, bridges, houses, airports and buildings that all require massive amounts of concrete and asphalt. The rise of countries like China and India, which are building cities and infrastructure on a massive scale, is further depleting the stock of sand. Rising sea levels require sand for the fortification of shorelines, especially as people move to the centers of economic activity in coastal areas all over the world.
As the world is running out of sand, a vital resource for modern society, solutions must come from innovative technologies and improved management.
The depleting stock of sand is especially worrying because there are no realistic substitutes. Sand from the desert is not suited to any human use, since the wind in the desert transforms sand beyond its useful size and shape. This is why Dubai imports sand from Australia. Sand on ocean beaches usually consists of shell pieces and increasingly, decomposing plastic – rendering this type of sand useless. To make matters worse, many potential sources of sand lie underneath human settlements, hence exploitation is blocked by regulation. Efforts to reduce consumption are complicated by the fact that many technologies (e.g. solar panels, wind turbines and autonomous vehicles) also depend on sand (silica, foundry sand, roads and highways, respectively).
Solutions are more likely to be innovative technologies and resource management, similar to the challenge of water scarcity. The U.K. already recycles nearly a third of its building materials. Europe plans to recycle 75% of glass by 2025. Singapore will rely on Dutch expertise for its next land reclamation project, which is far less dependent on sand. Such efforts are likely to gain traction, and expertise with sand (like expertise with water) will become more valuable as the world struggles to obtain sufficient resources.
- The atomic substrate of our digital modern world is obscure but fundamental to the entire ‘Stack’ of the global economy. Scarce resources like water, sand, and rare earth materials will increasingly create geopolitical struggles, and benefit those that command large shares of these resources.
- Irreplaceable resources like water and sand require innovative techniques to recycle, increase efficiency or even construct circular models – especially since substitutes are far from reality.