Are We Running Out of Sand?

Sand is essential to concrete. And concrete demand is on the rise.
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You probably don’t think much about sand on a day to day basis. If you’re reading this in your office or in a coffee shop, it’s not unlikely that the building you’re in needed sand to be built. Why? Because sand is a central ingredient in concrete and according to the Low Carbon Technology Partnerships Initiative it is “the most used man-made substance in the world,” with approximately three tons of concrete used each year for every human on the planet.

As Paul Fennell, a professor of clean energy at Imperial College London, told CNN last year, “We make more concrete than anything else, any other product, apart from clean water.” And we need sand for all that concrete. Per Construction Equipment, the construction industry is the biggest sand consumer in the world. The numbers put a clear stamp on just how much sand we use to build the places where we live, work and drive, “It takes about 400,000 pounds of sand to build a house; 60,000 tons for one mile of highway; and 12 million tons for a nuclear power plant.”

You might think that sand is readily abundant too, after all the world has several enormous deserts and producing more sand to meet demand wouldn’t seem to be that difficult. But according to a report from the United Nations Environmental Program, the global demand for sand has risen to exorbitant levels. The report estimates that, “a conservative estimate for the world consumption of [sand] aggregates exceeds 40 billion tonnes a year.”

That number is expected to keep rising due to increased demand from rapidly growing nations like China and Singapore, the biggest sand importer in the world, and other nations that are building massive sand-consuming projects like road systems and large-scale infrastructure projects. In China alone, per the UNEP report, “cement demand … has increased exponentially by 437.5% in 20 years.” And it doesn’t stop there, According to author Vince Beiser, who has written an entire tome on sand, we use sand more than any other substance on earth–outside of water or air. It’s used in glass as well, so those windows that allow light into an otherwise dark office or room—yep that’s sand too.

Okay, so why not just make more sand? Well, our supply of it is in fact finite. Researcher Kiran Pereira, who founded sandstories.org, told the German outlet Deutsche Welle, “Sand is a fossil resource. It takes millions of years to form—but a mine can be exhausted in decades.” Making more isn’t easy either, per an New York Times op-ed penned by Beiser, “We can make more sand, but crushing rock or pulverizing concrete is costly, and the resulting sand is ill suited for many applications.” Finally, perhaps the most obvious abundance of sand, the kind that sits in big deserts, has been generally unusable in construction projects, due to how it’s formed–though some entrepreneurs are experimenting with it as demand increases.

There’s an obvious market side to this as well. As demand for sand increases, and supply drops, then the price of the product rises. Sand is an enormous industry, and most notably for concrete, according to a 2017 USGS report on cement, “most of the sales of cement were to make concrete, worth at least $65 billion.” And in another USGS report focusing on the production of construction quality sand and gravel, the price per ton of this material has risen more than 11% since 2014.

There are alternative substances being created to replace sand-heavy concrete. Two German entrepreneurs are working on an innovative substance that uses desert sand as a main ingredient. But there are concerns among builders about how any replacement substance would stand up over time, as compared to concrete. The United Kingdom commissioned an entire study on potential concrete alternatives, but found many are currently too cost-prohibitive, and others may not meet current industry standards, “The construction sector is generally reluctant to adopt new building materials unless they have been proven for a long period (15-20 years).” You wouldn’t want to build a new office or home with a substance that could fall apart in less than two decades.

Perhaps the easiest solution, is the market solution that is now driving up sand costs. As the USGS stated in the 2017 report, cement production, “remained well below full capacity levels,” and “limestone and other cement raw materials are geologically widespread and abundant, and overall shortages are unlikely in the future.” The report also points to the fact that sand remains abundant but not economically profitable to produce in most places. As demand rises, that seems likely to change.

In the end, while sand isn’t as prevalent as one might imagine, that doesn’t mean we’ll run out of it any time soon.