Everything you need to know about the global sand shortage

With the rising demand for sand, the world is facing a shortage of this seemingly endless resource. How can we stop the ‘sand grab’?

‘In every grain of sand there is a story of the earth.’ 
Rachel Carson, Environmentalist

The 1965 science fiction novel ‘Dune’ depicts a future interstellar feudal society that revolves around the dystopian desert planet of Arrakis. The sand dunes that cover the planet contain a coveted resource and drug called ‘spice.’ Frank Herbert’s epic story evidently echoes our own planet’s resource addiction and resulting conflicts that have intensified since the industrial revolution. But the story also foreshadowed an even more specific element, which is the surprising resource grab for none other than sand itself. 

Sand can be found in many corners of our planet. In their natural settings, these grains make up our beaches, rivers, and deserts. In our urban environment, most of the world’s sand ‘aggregate’ (as industry calls it) is transformed into concrete for creating buildings we live in and the streets we tread on. At home, this universal material provides us with our glassware, microchips for our smartphones and is even sprinkled into our cosmetics. Consequently, sand has become the most ubiquitous yet overlooked resource in the world. This highly versatile material is the second most consumed resource on the planet (right after water consumption) with an estimated 40-50 billion tonnes of it being mined for industry every year (UNEP).

But why is this a problem one might ask? Surely there is an infinite supply of sand in the world?  

The answer is no and there are several reasons why. Firstly, existing sand originates from mountains that shed their rocky material over many years. These rocks are weathered down by water and wind and are eventually eroded into tiny grains of sand that flow into our rivers and seas. Secondly, the earth’s plentiful desert sands cannot be used to create concrete due to the spheric shape of the grains that are shaped by the wind. As a result, sand is globally mined from quarries, rivers, and pits as well as freshwater and marine ecosystems.  

As sand becomes less and less available, the aggregate industry has resorted to unsustainable and irresponsible sand mining extraction from the sea floors, beaches and rivers. From an ecological perspective, this practice disrupts the biodiversity that live in these ecosystems. River dredging erodes the river banks, which intensifies flood risks and lowers water aquifers (UNEP). Sea floor extraction also leads to beach erosion to the point that 70% of the world’s beaches are now disappearing (Sand Wars). The illegal aggregate business is a global phenomenon where some places have seen their beaches literally being stolen overnight. From the social level, this particularly affects countries that rely on tourism for their economic survival.

Fortunately, sand sustainability has recently received attention by the global community as UNEP released a report to tackle the issue in 2019. As Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment stated: 

“We are spending our sand ‘budget’ faster than we can produce it responsibly. By improving the governance of global sand resources, we can better manage this critical resource sustainably and truly demonstrate that infrastructure and nature can go hand in hand.” (UNEP). 

The detailed report outlines the complex ecological, social and governance issues that arise as the economic demand for sand increases. To remedy this, the report identifies the following three overarching solutions that have to be implemented at local levels: 

  • Avoiding unnecessary consumption 
  • Using recycled and alternative materials to replace natural sand in construction 
  • Reducing extraction impacts through implementing existing standards and best practices (UNEP)

To bring these directives down to the ground, let us delve into the second UNEP solution by exploring a real-life example. Namely, in 2019, an entrepreneurial couple from New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) started an inspiring project to recycle discarded glass by crushing it into sand. The so-called ‘Glass Half Full’ initiative was sparked over a bottle of wine between the students when they realised what a waste it was to discard the bottle along with the precious sand that created it in the first place (
Glass Half Full). In the context of New Orleans’s eroding coastline and the intensifying hurricanes fuelled by climate change, implementing a circular economic structure for glass was an even more obvious and pressing issue to solve. Since its inception (and becoming viral on TikTok, Glass Half Full has diverted over half a million kilos worth of glass from landfills by collecting it from residents and businesses. The social enterprise then sells the resulting sand to green construction industry as well as giving out free sandbags to local people during extreme weather to limit flooding. Glass Half Full demonstrates that we can help solve the sand shortage from a grassroots level, as one of the founders expressed beautifully: 

“We’re losing all this land, we’re running out of sand, and we’re also sending all our glass to landfill for no reason. What if we could solve all those problems with one solution – recycling glass into sand and using it to restore our coast?” (The Independent).

– by Tina Ateljevic

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