Jenna Ladd | July 21, 2017
After a day at the beach, you’ll find sand lingering in all the wrong places: between the pages of your book, wrapped up in beach towels, and cemented to bathing suits. Despite sand’s unrelenting presence in beachgoers’ personal lives, there is a global shortage of the stuff and it’s having real environmental impacts.
International demand for sand has skyrocketed in recent years thanks to rapid urbanization in Asia. Sand is used to make the concrete and asphalt for every new building, road, and residence. More than thirteen billion tons of sand were mined for construction last year, 70 percent went to Asia. According to a report from the BBC, China used more sand in the last four years than the U.S. used in all of the 20th century. It’s not just Asia, though, the number of people worldwide living in cities has quadrupled since 1950.
Sand is formed when rocks are pulverized by natural forces and then transported to shores by wind and water over the course of millions of years. At present, it is being extracted at a rate much too fast for natural systems to keep up with.
To keep pace with exploding demand, sand miners are dredging lakes and rivers, chipping away at coastlines and disappearing entire small islands. Sand extraction in rivers often deepens the channel, making bank erosion more likely. Similarly, when miners remove sediments, they often also remove plant life, which can have adverse impacts on aquatic food chains. The practice can have disastrous effects for infrastructure too. For example, for many years, sand for construction in Shanghai was mined from the Yangtze River. The practice was banned in 2000 after entire bridges were undermined and 1,000 feet of riverbank fell into the river.
Many other countries are imposing regulations on sand mining. In the United States, sand cannot be mined near large residential areas or offshore. Export limits and mining restrictions are in place in several Asian countries like Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and India, but the “sand mafia” in India is making regulators’ job difficult. The illegal sand mining industry is expected to be worth more than $2 billion a year.
Wealthier western countries have begun moving toward sand alternatives. For example, asphalt and concrete can be recycled and crushed rock can be used instead of sand in some cases. Twenty-eight percent of building materials used in the United Kingdom in 2014 were recycled, according Britain’s Mineral Products Association. Moving forward, the European Union plans to recycle 75 percent of its glass by 2025, which should decrease some demand for sand.