Sand: An important resource is becoming scarce

sand
14 Dez 2021

If you think of resource conservation, sand probably doesn’t immediately come to mind. But these small granules are needed in every industry – be it for the production of glass, computer chips or concrete. Despite the many deposits in seas, rivers and deserts, sand is slowly becoming scarce. In addition, extraction causes ecological and social problems. It is therefore clear that we need to find a solution to our sand crisis. 

The rapid growth of the global population and economy as well as increasing urbanisation are resulting in an enormous demand for sand. Sand is used primarily in the construction industry and for the production of a wide range of goods, but it is also used to build completely new land masses – as in Singapore or Dubai, for example. According to UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), about 50 billion tonnes of sand are needed worldwide every year. Demand will increase even more in the coming years – especially due to growth in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Why sand is becoming scarce

Most of the sand on our planet is created by erosion and the weathering of mountains. Stones, decreasing in size continuously over time, are transported by rivers into lakes or seas or spread by the wind. Millions of years pass by before sand is created from rock and reaches its destination. However, we are currently extracting more of this resource than nature can supply. Pascal Peduzzi of UNEP says in this regard: „So far, we have used sand as if it were infinite. But there is likely to be a production peak – just as there is with oil.“

The sand shortage is already being felt in Germany. Despite production in about 2,000 sand and gravel pits, supply bottlenecks keep occurring. This is because many areas under which sand could be found are in built-up districts or designated as protected areas and can therefore not be used. Other countries extract sand directly from the sea and coastal areas. However, due to the salt content, this is of lower quality than that extracted from rivers.

For many uses, such as concrete production, fine desert sand is also not suitable. That is why, for the construction of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai had to import sand from Australia. The city state of Singapore also used imported sand to increase its area – what Singapore gained in area disappeared from the seabed of Indonesia or Malaysia. In the meantime, many neighbouring countries have banned exports.

The consequences of sand mining

The extraction of sand from rivers and seas entails a whole range of ecological impacts. This is because, when the sand is sucked out or dug up, marine organisms are killed and their habitat destroyed. Ecosystems and currents become unbalanced. As the sand slides into the holes on the seabed, more and more beaches disappear. This in turn causes coastal areas to be more impacted by floods and storms.

Combined with climate change and dams that further reduce sediment flow, sand extraction is causing irreversible damage. For example in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam: the WWF assumes that only half of the delta will still exist in 2100. Millions of people will then lose their homes, and fishermen and farmers their sources of income.

These problems are further compounded by an additional factor: organised sand theft. In the meantime, according to estimates, 10 to 15% of sand is extracted illegally. In some cases, armed groups steal entire beaches. And this „Sand Mafia“ is also responsible for murders.

Solutions for a more sustainable use of sand

One of the most important approaches for a more careful use of our sand resources is the recycling of materials and waste containing sand and gravel. Within the framework of the BauCycle project conducted by several Fraunhofer Institutes, for example, it was possible to develop processes that produce aerated concrete and sound-absorbing panels from construction waste. Excavated soil does not have to be disposed of either, but can be processed and reused. In addition, it is possible to use recycled glass as a sand substitute in concrete. In this way, the use of primary resources can be reduced.

Research is also being carried out on ways to make desert sand usable. This is actually too fine for concrete production, but by grinding it into flour and then compacting it into granules, it is indeed possible to use it. Corresponding plants are particularly interesting for the Arab countries. Extraction and processing on site saves on long transport routes and emissions.

In addition to research and innovation on the part of companies and institutes, politics is called upon to introduce international rules for sand extraction and to curb the illegal sand trade. There is also a need to raise awareness about the consequences of sand extraction and possible alternatives. Measures such as the The Substitute Building Materials and Soil Protection Umbrella Ordinance which the federal government passed this year, are a first step. In this way, uniform, Germany-wide standards for the production and use of mineral substitute building materials have been established which are intended to promote these materials.

Conclusion

Sand as a resource is becoming scarcer all the time. Increasing demand and decreasing availability lead to the exploitation of the deposits, resulting in considerable environmental damage. To solve this crisis, new recycling processes and alternative materials are just as much required as political regulations. As is true for all raw materials: we must be more conscientious in our handling of them and a sustainable material cycle must be made possible. Our goal here at IT-Remarketing is exactly that.


Julia Schuch