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Why the world is running out of sand

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If you’re planning a beach vacation, you’d better get to it soon. An alarming statistic for you: 67% of Southern California beaches? GONE by 2100. All because of sand. Even if you don’t think about the grainy stuff, you use it daily. You’re reading this off something made with sand, looking at it through a screen made with sand, surrounded by buildings made with concrete. I could let you guess what’s in concrete, but I suspect you’re already catching onto a theme here. The following is a transcript of the video.

I’ll try to make this quick since we don’t have a lot of time. The world is running out of sand.

Crazy right? We literally have tons of it on beaches, deserts, and under the ocean, but we’re using it up faster than the planet can make it.

We use sand way more than you’d expect. Worldwide, we go through 50 billion tons of sand every year. That is twice the amount produced by every river in the world.

After air and water, sand is our most used natural resource. We use it even more than oil.

It’s used to make food, wine, toothpaste, glass, computer chips, breast implants, cosmetics, paper, paint, plastics.

So where does it all come from? Well, let’s ask Vince Beiser! He wrote a book on the subject, called The World in a Grain.




Vince Beiser: “So the sand that we use, is what you call ‘marine sand.’ It’s the sand that you find at the bottom of rivers, and on beaches and at the bottom of lakes and oceans.”

I know what you’re thinking, and no, 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.

The major player for sand usage is concrete. Okay, just to clarify: cement is the lime and clay based glue that holds everything together, and concrete is the finished product that you walk on, drive on, and live inside.

Concrete is made of 10% cement (lime and Clay) 15% water and -yup: 75% sand. The concrete required to build a house takes on average 200 tons of sand, a hospital uses 3,000 tons, and a mile of a highway requires 15,000 tons.

It makes sense that the world makes over 4 billion tons of concrete annually. We need more every year. The number and size of our cities is exploding, especially in the developing world.

This change is most noticeable in China, now home to the largest urban area in the world, the Pearl River Delta. Between 42 and 60 million people call the delta home. China now has 102 cities with a population of over a million. Europe has 38. For all those new cities, they need a lot of concrete.

Between 2011 and 2013, China used more concrete than the US did in the entire 20th century. Again: in Three years, China built the equivalent to every highway, road bridge in the US. And the Hoover Dam

So it’s not outrageous to hear that China also outpaces the world in cement production. By a LOT: 2500 metric tons a year.

All that cement is going to need a lot of sand to make concrete. Most of it comes from dredging Poyang Lake. An estimated 236 cubic metes of sand are taken from it every year, making it the largest single sand mine in the world.

But concrete isn’t the only use for sand. China is also using tons of sand to build up islands in the South China Sea, expanding its foothold in the region.

And China’s not the only nation building islands from nothing. You’ve seen these before. The Palm Islands and The World were major island building projects in Dubai, and required 186.5 million meters of sand. This depleted the sea floor around the United Arab Emirates, leaving importing sand from Australia as the only option when constructing the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

It’s no surprise then that the sand extraction is a $70 billion industry.

Vince Beiser: “The easiest, cheapest and best quality sand actually comes from riverbeds. It’s very easy to get, you just send a boat out into the middle of a river, with a big suction pump on it. Its basically like a big straw that you drop down to the bottom of the river, suck all that sand up off the bottom.”

Problem Solved? Nope! The ocean floor isn’t miles of sand deep. It’s a thin layer over rock, and that layer is home to microorganisms, which feed the base of the food chain. Collecting that sand disrupts fishing in the area and the landscape on shore. When removing sand from the seabed, the shore above water slides into the valley to even itself out. This still leaves shore communities open to flooding and erosion.

Vince Beiser: “The recent floods in Houston were actually made worse by sand mining in the San Jacinto River. The San Jacinto is one of the rivers that borders Houston. It’s also an excellent source of sand. It has been mined very heavily for sand for the past ten, twenty years.”

Up to 90% of the world’s beaches have shrunk an average of 40 meters since 2008. If you haven’t noticed a change in your favorite beach, you’re not alone. Popular shores replenish their dying beaches with even more sand, imported from elsewhere. And if we keep it up: Almost 70% of Southern California’s spectacular beaches could be completely eroded by 2100.

Governments worldwide have begun to regulate and restrict sand mining and concrete production. Now Problem solved, right? Actually, It’s caused an entirely new problem: The Black Market of Sand Illegal sand mining has lead to the rise of the Sand Mafia, India’s strongest criminal organization.

This interconnected group of businessmen, drivers and criminals use their influence, and if that fails, violence and murder to keep the sand flowing illegal sand generates $2.3 billion a year, employing 75,000 of India’s impoverished to dive for sand in rivers. Divers work 12-hour days, diving up to 200 times and making only $15 a boatload. Many suffer from bleeding ears and headaches. Deaths and drownings go unreported.

Worldwide, illegal sand mining has destroyed entire islands. Two dozen Indonesian islands have disappeared around the same time Singapore imported 17 million tons for it’s massive 50-mile land expansion. It wasn’t until 2010 that dozens of Malaysian officials were charged with accepting bribes and sexual favors for importing the illegal sand.

Vince Beiser: “The first thing that we’re going to see in this country, the sort-of canary in the coal mine, that will really let us know that things are starting to get bad, is prices. I believe this is one of the reasons that housing prices have gone up so much, in pretty much all of America’s big cities, because the price of sand has about quintupled in the past 30-40 years. And that’s one of the critical inputs whenever you’re building a house, of course, is sand for the concrete.”

We do have some alternatives. While crushing rocks and recycled concrete is expensive, it can be used to create concrete-quality sand. Glass bottles can be ground to make ‘recycled glass sand’ to replenish beaches. Yes, it’s totally safe, and no, it won’t cut you.

Finally, UN Environmental Program suggests better pricing and taxing on sand mining to encourage these alternatives. They also recommend an immediate need for creating regulations in all countries, as well as international waters.

Vince Beiser: “The questions isn’t ‘how can we use less sand?’, it’s ‘How can we use less everything?’ Trees, water, fish, we’re overusing all of those things, and sand is just another thing we should be adding to the list. Well, we’re on track to be a planet of at least 9 billion people in the next 20 years. Most of them are going to want to consume resources the way we do in the Western world, and that is just physically impossible.”

If we want to enjoy these things, while still enjoying this thing, we need to protect this thing, before we run out of time.

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