The Next Sustainability Crisis: Humans Are Using So Much Sand That We May Actually Run Out
Sand is the most-consumed natural resource in the world after water and air. Modern cities are built out of it. In the construction industry alone, it is estimated that 25 billion tons of sand and gravel are used every year. That may sound a lot, but it’s not a surprising figure when you consider how everything you’re surrounded with is probably made of the stuff.
But it’s running out.
This is a scary fact to think about once you realize that sand is required to make both concrete and asphalt, not to mention every single window on this planet. The United Nations Environment Programme found out that from 2011 to 2013, China alone used more cement than the United States had used in the entire 20th century and in 2012, the world used enough concrete to build a wall around the equator that would be 89 feet high and 89 feet thick (27 by 27 meters).
Many of us have the common misconception that sand is an infinite resource, but the harsh reality is that it isn’t. At the rate we are using it, countries such as Vietnam could run out by as soon as 2020, as estimated by the country’s Ministry of Construction. A specific sand is required for use in construction and, unfortunately, the abundance of sand from the world’s deserts is of very little use to us, as the grains are too smooth and fine to bind together. The usable sand we need can take years to form and with our current consumption, it’s just not sustainable.
This issue has only been raised over the last ten years or so. At last year’s Dutch Design Week, Atelier NL held a symposium in which they discussed the subject and brought it to the attention of the media: “As the urbanization of our modern world expands, so does the need for this unassuming resource,” said Atelier NL’s Nadine Sterk and Lonny van Ryswyck. “Yet sand is being excavated at a rate faster than it can renew itself. It is disappearing from shorelines, rivers, and seabeds, causing disastrous effects for both environmental and human systems.”