Cities Made of Sand

A ubiquitous resource threatened by massive overuse

Cities Made of Sand

Sand. You probably don’t think about it, except perhaps when you’re dumping it out of your shoes following a languorous day at the beach. What you may not know is that sand is a diminishing resource that forms the bedrock of our modern way of life.

You probably haven’t given much thought to sand, especially given its ubiquity. But when you consider that sand is essentially the bedrock of modern life—used to build everything from the structures we live in to the electronics we use to store virtually all the world’s information—the substance begins to bear weight.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, aside from water, we use sand more than any other natural resource. No other material is extracted from the earth as much as sand, which accounts for between 68 and 85 percent of the 47 to 59 billion tonnes of material (think construction materials, fossil fuels, ores/industrial minerals, etc.) that are mined every year.

The amount of sand being extracted has also increased more than any other material, at a rate well beyond its rate of renewal. In fact, the world could be at risk of overextracting one of its most common resources, which has also become the locus for serious social and environmental harm.

Mounting demand

Wait. But in the face of increasing desertification, where large tracts of fertile land are succumbing to sand encroachment and degradation, how can we be running out of sand?

For one, we use a lot of it.

Vince Beiser is a journalist who’s written about the global sand crisis for Wired, The New York Times, and The Guardian, and in his forthcoming book (available 2018).

“Sand is the most important solid substance on earth,” says Beiser. “We use more of it than any other natural resource except water and air. Sand is the literal foundation of modern civilization. It’s what our cities are made of. It’s concrete, it’s asphalt, it’s glass, it’s the silicon chips that run our computers and our phones.”

When you look at everything we use sand for, and then look at how much of it we use, the picture gets clearer. Sheer population growth means we need more resources to support the way we want to live.

Beiser explains that rapid urbanization in the past 50 years has driven demand in the form of concrete. People in developing countries—especially China and India, but also others such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam—are moving to cities on a massive scale, requiring new apartments, roads, factories, and other infrastructure to sustain them.

In 1960, about 1 billion of the world’s 3 billion people lived in cities. Today, more than 4 billion, almost 55 percent of the global population, live in cities. By 2050, 65 percent of people will live in urban environments.

“If you think about how much sand—how much concrete, glass, and asphalt—it takes to build an urban environment for 3 billion people, that’s what we’ve done over the last 50 years,” says Beiser. “We’re adding the equivalent of seven New York Cities every year. And that’s just a mind-boggling amount.”

High-impact resource

When it comes to desertification, there really is no upside. Desert sand gets worn from wind erosion, making it smooth and round—and impossible to bind together. Without these binding properties, sand isn’t much use.

Instead, sand broken away from mountains, and then shaped and formed through streams and rivers, into lakes and oceans, form the ideal building materials. Over millions of years, we’ve accumulated a lot of the stuff, but the more we take, the more impact we have on the environment—and the more difficult it becomes to find and retrieve the sand we need.

“It’s an extractive industry like any other,” says Beiser. “When you pull that much sand out of the earth, or out of a riverbed, or out of a flood plain, or from underneath a farmer’s field, it causes damage.”

Rivers are especially susceptible to damage, where dredging operations literally scoop sand from sensitive riverbeds, stirring up sediment. “All the mud, silt, and sand that was at the bottom of the river goes up into the water and can stay there for a very long time,” says Beiser. “It suffocates fish, and any other living organisms, and it blocks sunlight from getting to the plant life along the river bottom, even in places where they haven’t dredged.”

Ocean habitats are also at risk, as dredging crawlers destroy coral reefs either directly from contact or indirectly from sediment.

If that’s not enough, transporting the sand mined from the ground or ocean floor over long distances, combined with heavy industrial manufacturing processes, produces high carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change.

There’s also the human side of the equation. Government regulations and increased demand have created a black market for sand, putting many people and their families in danger. In India alone, hundreds have reportedly lost their lives.

Shift in mindset

For Beiser, one of the only ways to reduce the negative impacts of sand extraction is to limit its use. “At the end of the day, the issue isn’t really just sand,” says Beiser. “The only way to deal with this issue of sand is to use less of it in the first place. To do that, we have to use less of everything. Because it’s just one more natural resource that we’re overconsuming.”

There’s no doubt that we take sand for granted, assuming there will always be plenty to wash up on our shores. What we didn’t realize is that, year after year, this seemingly ubiquitous resource is gradually washing away.

What can we do?

The first thing we can do is to recognize the negative impact that ongoing sand mining, on a global scale, will have on our way of life. The second is to find ways to act on this knowledge by reducing our consumption.

  • Using—or reusing—the materials and resources we already have is one way to reduce our consumption. On a large scale, this could involve finding new uses for existing buildings and paved spaces. (Find out more about adaptive reuse by reading “Second Time Around.”)
  • Looking at infrastructure, concrete rubble and other recycled building materials can be used for applications requiring lower quality resources, such as the foundation for highway beds.
  • At home, used bricks and concrete cinderblocks can be reused in outdoor gardens and other landscaping projects.
  • In the house, reusing and recycling glass containers also saves having to produce the glass (which is made from liquid sand) otherwise needed for new products.
  • As for technology, resisting the temptation to upgrade to the latest electronic gadgets (smartphones, tablets, TVs) can save money as well as disappearing resources.

Sand as luxury item

Far from insignificant, sand is actually one of our greatest luxuries. Pristine beaches are destinations for millions eager to soak up rays while unwinding on sweeping beds of manicured white sand. But while we gaze upon waves crashing in the distance, many of the world’s most popular beach destinations are fleeting, and have been for some time.

Natural processes such as storms, winds, tides, sea level rise, and human activities eventually cause coastal sand to move, causing erosion. But with so much depending upon these beaches—think of all the resorts and expensive real estate along such iconic coastal beaches as Miami, Cancun, Northern Gold Coast, and Waikiki—you can understand why beaches are routinely remediated by beach nourishment projects, where many thousands of tonnes of sand are trucked in to replenish these iconic beaches.

Even in Canada, Sugar Beach, built beneath the towers of Downtown Toronto, relies on mined sand imported from elsewhere.

You might also like

Insecticides May Be to Blame for Honeybee Deaths

World population reaches 7 billion

Permafrost: Not So Permanent