The World Is Running Out of Sand

Sand might seem plentiful in some places, but not all sand is created equal. Luca Galuzzi/Wiki Commons

After a trip to the beach, you're likely to return with sand in your hair, between your toes, underneath your fingernails. It might be difficult to believe that the world is running out of the stuff, but it is.

Sand — that seemingly abundant resource — is becoming a rare commodity. That's because it's the most commonly extracted resource worldwide; more than oil, more than gold. We need it to make concrete, asphalt, and glass. The silicon chips in your electronics are even made, in part, from sand. It's everywhere, and our mining operations are getting out of hand.

A big part of the problem is that not all sand is created equal. Dry, fine grains like those found in desert sand dunes are often inadequate as a construction material. And sand is surprisingly scarce in most of the world's deserts, despite common depictions.

“Not all the sand that we see is suitable for construction, and in particular the sand from deserts like the Sahara, in general, is not good for making concrete as it substantially reduces its strength — the grains of desert sand are too round, fine and single sized," explained Dr. Aurora Torres, a post-doctoral researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, to ZME Science. "For concrete, a diverse mix of irregular grains of sand is much better. There are many research teams trying to find ways to use desert sand but the techniques that are being developed use more energy, are more expensive and generate more greenhouse gases. Other deserts don’t have as much sand as we might think, like the Gobi desert."

Where the 'good' sand is

Another part of the problem is that much of the "good" sand is in ecologically sensitive areas, such as along rivers or coastlines. Mining operations destroy habitats, and removing sand from where it occurs naturally can cause problems with erosion and leave coastlines vulnerable during extreme weather events like hurricanes or tsunamis.

The problem is only likely to get worse. That's because as supply dwindles, its value increases. And as its value increases, competition for the resource ramps up, and lucrative black markets can emerge.

We're already seeing this happen with sand. (Yes, there are actually black markets for sand.) For instance, a "sand mafia" has formed in some countries like India, where sand trading is big business. In another example, the government in Hong Kong was forced to establish a state monopoly over sand mining and trade not too long ago, just to try and stop regular violence that had cropped up in relation to rampant competition over the resource.

Governments worldwide might need to intervene in similar ways just to stabilize the market. And just to reiterate: yes, we're still talking about sand.

The sand shortage is already reaching critical levels in some countries.

“In Vietnam, the ministry of construction made an official declaration that by 2020, Vietnam may run out sand because the extraction rates exceed the resources of the country," said Torres.

The good news is, there are solutions. Sand (or, at least, the materials made from sand) can be recycled. Furthermore, there are global economic regulations that can be enacted which have the power to stabilize the market.

The crisis is a looming reminder that no resource is truly unlimited. Even sand mining demands that sustainable practices be put into practice. Our economic systems, like Earth's ecosystems, must be balanced.