Sand is the second most consumed substance after water and is the most mined resource on Earth – responsible for 85% of all mineral extraction! Sand is used in virtually every construction or manufacturing process, it’s even used as an ingredient in some toothpaste.
Sand mining is the extraction of sand through open pit (land) mining as well from beaches and dunes or dredged from river beds. Historically, sand was extracted in land quarries and riverbeds; however, as those resources have declined, sand mining is shifting to marine and coastal sources.
Although there are vast deserts on Earth full of sand, this sand is useless for human needs; it is the wrong shape. The grains have been eroded by wind, leaving them smooth and rounded. This keeps them from locking together to form stable concrete. The sand we need commercially has been eroded by water; jagged, angular grains found in riverbeds, lakes and coasts. This is also where we find silica sand, a higher grade of sand which is needed for glass.
Sand is the primary raw material that makes cities. Urbanization is expanding globally much faster than any time in human history. The number of people living in cities has quadrupled since 1950 to over 4 billion, and the United Nations predicts another 2.5 billion in the next 30 years. That’s the equivalent of adding eight cities the size of New York every single year. All of those cities are made of sand.
Let’s start with the foundation. Cement consists of limestone, sand, silica sand, shale and clay. Sand makes cement more binding. Cement mixed with water and more sand becomes mortar (used to hold bricks together). If more sand and gravel (aggregate) is added, it becomes concrete. Concrete is one of the strongest and longest-lasting building materials known and therefore is used to construct most urban structures.
In order to create new land where there is water, material such as rocks, soil, sand and cement are added to the water until new solid ground is created. According to a Dutch research group, since 1985 5,237 sq miles (13,563 sq km) of artificial land have been added to worldwide coasts. This is about the size of Jamaica or the US state of Connecticut. This has been made possible with huge amounts of sand.
Singapore has increased its land mass by 22% since its independence in 1965. Dubai’s palm-tree shaped islands are a famous example. Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, is adding a 2,400-acre (9.7 sq km) urban extension to its Atlantic shoreline. China, already the fourth-largest nation on Earth, has added hundreds of miles to its coast, and built entire islands.
There are estimated to be over 64 million km of roads in the world. Of those, approximately 65% are paved. Sand and gravel make up 90% of asphalt and 80% of concrete roads. The more roads we build, the more sand we need.
Approximately 70% of glass is silica sand, a specific type of sand that contains quartz grains. The glass in every window on buildings, cars, and boats is primarily sand. Smartphone screens are melted-down sand. Sand is also needed to manufacture medical-grade glass vials (used to hold vaccines).
High-purity silica sand is used for high-tech products like solar panels and computer chips inside our phones and computers. Virtually every piece of electronic equipment in your home is made from sand.
The problem with sand mining is overuse. We are using sand faster than nature can replace it. Scientists estimate that the natural weathering of mountains and rocks creates 12.6 billion tons of sediment each year. We are extracting sand more than three times faster; this amounts to 20kg (44 pounds) of sand per day, per person! In 2012 alone, enough concrete was generated to build a wall 27 metres high by 27 metres wide all of the way around the equator!
And this continues to happen due to a lack of awareness of the magnitude of the many sand mining problems and consequences.
Lack of Regulation and Enforcement
Globally sand is a $70 billion industry. It is the second most traded resource and the most mined, but it is also the least regulated worldwide.
While river and beach mining have been largely banished in developed countries, sand mining continues to expand in many developing countries. Even in areas where sand mining is regulated by law, it is often done illegally and full of corruption and violence. Police officers, journalists and protestors have been killed around the world over sand. So-called “sand mafias” illegally dredge sand from prohibited areas, indifferent to environmental regulations. In 2020 alone, Taiwan’s Coast Guard stopped nearly 4000 illegal sand dredging ships in their waters!
Loss of Land
Unrestricted sand mining results in loss of land through river or coastal erosion, lowering of the water table, and decreases in the amount of sediment supply.
Sand is often removed from beaches to support coastal development: building hotels, roads, and other tourism infrastructure. In some places, this continued construction leads to massive beach erosion and eventually the loss of the tourist attraction itself, the beach.
In Indonesia, two dozen small islands have disappeared in the last 16 years as their sandy foundation has been removed. At least 2,000 additional islands across Indonesia are at risk of disappearing if excessive mining continues.
In the Maldives, sand is being mined from small offshore islands to protect the coastline of the capital, Male, against rising seas. Sadly, these islands are losing elevation as their sand is removed and their population has to relocate.
In western Sierra Leone, sand extraction is causing coastal erosion of up to 6 meters a year. Sadly, much of the sand being removed is used to reconstruct roads and buildings that have been destroyed by the ocean as it gets closer and closer to inhabitants.
With sand mining removing coastal beaches and riverbeds, vital nesting habitat for sea turtles and birds is gone. Additionally, seals, sea lions, crabs, clams, scallops, sand dollars, starfish, worms, insects and various microorganisms all rely on sandy beaches or tidal zones. Sand mining has led to the near extinction of endangered gharials in India.
Dredging churns up sediment which clouds the surrounding waters, suffocating fish and blocking the sunlight that sustains underwater vegetation. Coastal dredging has ruined mangrove and seagrass ecosystems which are home to river dolphins, green turtles, dugongs, and otters as well spawning and nursery areas for various fish species.
Similarly, coastal dredging of sand severely impacts coral reefs. The disturbance of underwater and coastal sand blocks the sun necessary for the survival of coral species. In fact, a recent report found that dredging impacted corals and reef habitat 2.5 km away from the site and possibly as much as 10 km away.
With sand miners turning to the deep sea, there is even more potential loss of biodiversity in seabed communities. Worldwide, thousands of ships suck up millions of tons of sand from the ocean floor annually. This immediately destroys the habitat occupied by bottom-dwelling organisms, many of which might not yet be known. And as with coastal dredging, the sediment plumes can affect aquatic life far from the original site.
Of course, when we remove the coasts and the floor of our water systems, we affect the water itself. Not only does coastal and water table pollution increase in areas of sand mining, but changes in water flow and marine currents have been found.
The erosion of coastal areas and beaches affects infrastructure (roads, bridges, protection walls, and buildings) with the decrease in land foundation and riverbank and coastal erosion. Bridges have collapsed in Taiwan, Portugal, and India resulting in deaths of dozens of people.
Sand mining has a direct and indirect effect on global warming. The extraction process and transport of sand directly uses fossil fuels. But indirectly, cement production creates 30 billion tons of CO2; worldwide this accounts for 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Removal of natural coastal barriers decreases natural protections from floods and storm surges. When sea sand is mined, the intensity of tidal floods can increase in beachside communities without the natural barrier. Similarly, the removal of ocean sand can create a steep ocean floor which reduces damping of waves before impact causing higher, and more destructive, waves to reach the coastline.
The dire consequences of our overuse of sand and concrete are only beginning to be understood and discussed. Everyone takes this for granted; we need things and they are built without regard for the source or the impact. This must change.
Addressing the crisis of sand mining will require a huge societal shift; similar to that required to address climate change. We must make radical changes in how we design buildings and infrastructure. We must constantly evaluate if new construction is even necessary.
The good news is that we have the technology already: recycling concrete rather than creating more, recycling glass into glass sand, and even using sand-sized recycled plastic in concrete are all options.
Changes in this area are much bigger than those of one individual. But one individual can spread the message!
Spread awareness about this problem
If we consume less, fewer resources are required. Think about the impact of your purchases. Do you need the latest or multiple electronic devices?
There is so much concrete waste. Legislation and controls on the disposal of concrete, and financial incentives to reuse can change that.
Sand mining, despite being a global problem with lasting consequences, is not talked about as often as it could be. These organizations are working to spread the word.
I was unable to find any hopeful stories about conservation or educational successes in sand mining. If you know of any, please message me as I am anxious to spread good news and messages of hope.