The world needs a global agenda for sand

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What links the building you live in, the glass you drink from and the computer you work on? The answer is smaller than you think and is something we are rapidly running out of: sand.

In a commentary published today in the journal Nature, a group of scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Illinois, the University of Hull and Arizona State University highlight the urgent need for a global agenda for sand.

Sand is a key ingredient in the recipe of modern life, and yet it might be our most overlooked natural resource, the authors argue. Sand and gravel are being extracted faster than they can be replaced. Rapid urbanization and global population growth have fueled the demand for sand and gravel, with between 32 and 50 billion tons extracted globally each year.

"From 2000-2100 it is projected there will be a 300 percent increase in sand demand and 400 percent increase in prices," said Mette Bendixen, a researcher at CU Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR). "We urgently require a monitoring program to address the current data and , and thus fully assess the magnitude of sand scarcity. It is up to the , governments and policy makers to take the steps needed to make this happen."

A lack of oversight and monitoring is leading to unsustainable exploitation, planning and trade. Removal of sand from rivers and beaches has far-reaching impacts on ecology, infrastructure, national economies and the livelihoods of the 3 billion people who live along the world's river corridors. Illegal sand mining has been documented in 70 countries across the globe, and battles over sand have reportedly killed hundreds in recent years, including local citizens, police officers and government officials.

"Politically and socially, we must ask: If we can send probes to the depths of the oceans or the furthest regions of the solar system, is it too much to expect that we possess a reliable understanding of sand mining in the world's great rivers, and on which so much of the world's human population, rely?" said Jim Best, a professor at the University of Illinois Department of Geology. "Now is the time to commit to gaining such knowledge by fully grasping and utilizing the new techniques that are at our disposal."

In order to move towards globally sustainable sand extraction, the authors argue that we must fully understand the occurrence of sustainable sources and reduce current extraction rates and sand needs, by recycling concrete and developing alternative to sand (such as crushed rocks or plastic waste materials). This will rely on a knowledge of the location and extent of sand mining, as well as the natural variations in sand flux in the world's rivers.

"The fact that sand is such a fundamental component of modern society, and yet we have no clear idea of how much sand we remove from our rivers every year, or even how much sand is naturally available, makes ensuring this industry is sustainable very, very difficult" said Chris Hackney, research fellow at the University of Hull's Energy and Environment Institute. "It's time that sand was given the same focus on the world stage as other global commodities such as oil, gas and precious metals."

"The issue of scarcity cannot be studied in geographical isolation as it has worldwide implications," said Lars L. Iversen, a research fellow at Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. "The reality and size of the problem must be acknowledged—and action must be taken—on a global stage. In a rapidly changing world, we cannot afford blind spots."

Explore further

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More information: Mette Bendixen et al, Time is running out for sand, Nature (2019). DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-02042-4
Journal information: Nature

Citation: The world needs a global agenda for sand (2019, July 2) retrieved 23 October 2019 from
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Jul 02, 2019
Wait a minute. Aren't there massive amount of sand in deserts??? 20 percent of the earth's surface is covered in sand. The Sahara is 3.5 millions square miles of sand. Just get it from there.

Jul 02, 2019
chemhaznet1: I believe most of that sand is not "clean" (dust contamination) and is unusable for concrete. The stuff from river bottoms and beaches has been cleaned by water action.

Jul 03, 2019
Banal Resentive: an economist might say that Sahara desert sand is still sand; all the difference is that the price will be higher, because it must be processed first (assuming it is possible to "clean" Sahara desert sand) and transported to where it is needed.

I imagine both of these are relatively water and energy intensive; two things that are similarly overexploited and so their prices could rise faster still.

However you look at it, sand, water and energy could become more expensive; possibly significantly so. But the lack of information about sand - the point of this article - means we can't have too much confidence in such assertions.

China is nearly the biggest global economy; a quick search suggests the Gobi desert isn't very sandy. It isn't hard to project a scenario where China "colonises" North African countries to secure its access to sand. This alone should be chilling.

Jul 03, 2019
An economist might also say that when prices rise, markets look for alternatives. In Western Europe and North America (probably others; don't know) we package food in single-use glass jars. This may no longer be affordable. What are the alternatives? Glass is relatively energy intensive and hence expensive choice; don't they use glass because it already is the best choice? . In the EU at least, recycling is mandatory, but reusing would be better.

Jul 03, 2019
I have often wondered why, in highly economically developed nations like the EU, they don't standardise glass jar sizes and shapes, then toughen them with titanium dioxide, then use supermarkets as collection points for empty glass jars. Maybe even at collect at kerbside. This is how milk used to be packaged in the UK until the 1990s, and how Scandinavian countries collect empty plastic bottles (in that case for recycling, in this case for cleaning and reuse). Should be practical to achieve, increasingly cost effective, and have sufficient structure and scale in the EU. What am I missing...?

Jul 03, 2019
Could the construction industry, again I can only comment about the EU, revert to timber homes, now that modern materials like aerogel insulation and techniques makes timber a practical alternative to brick + block + mortar? They seem to manage just fine in Norway, Sweden and Finland with timber homes. (dense urban high-rise is a different discussion). Farmed timber is of course relatively sustainable. Again, what am I missing (apart from "irrational" market preference...?)

Jul 03, 2019
[multiple posts because of comment size limit]

Jul 03, 2019
Wait a minute. Aren't there massive amount of sand in deserts??? 20 percent of the earth's surface is covered in sand. The Sahara is 3.5 millions square miles of sand. Just get it from there.

Exactly, first thing I thought of was, the Sahara is running out of sand? Another alarmist BS article.

Jul 03, 2019
Wait a minute. Aren't there massive amount of sand in deserts??? 20 percent of the earth's surface is covered in sand. The Sahara is 3.5 millions square miles of sand. Just get it from there.

The sand in desert/coastal dunes is very different from mineral and nutrient rich lake/river bed sand.

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