Home 5 Recycled Products 5 Time’s Running Out for Sand

Time’s Running Out for Sand

Aug 29, 2021 | Recycled Products, Sustainability

If you were to think of the most abundant resources in the world, sand would surely come to mind. It’s everywhere, from vast sprawling beaches and scenic lakes to abundant river beds – and not to mention the seemingly never ending deserts across the World.

This perceived abundance is an all too common misconception, which is leading the World to consume sand at a rate that means we will have exhausted our natural stocks by 2050 (Leung, 2019). That’s just 29 years away.

Sand products

So how much sand do we really consume?

Sand plays a part in everything we use from the homes we live in to the food we eat, the microchips powering the device you’re reading this on as well as the roads and pavements we use everyday. It’s even used as a filter medium in water treatment plants, the list really is endless. It’s all around us and is a key building block of modern civilisation. 

In the last 20 years, the consumption of sand has tripled to 50 billions tonnes per year and virgin stocks have plummeted as a result (CNBC, 2021). Construction booms across the world are fuelling the sand crisis which has resulted in sinister ramifications.

One of the biggest drivers of the so-called “sand wars” is construction. Construction in China is responsible for a staggering 60% of the world’s consumption. It is estimated that the Chinese have used more sand in the last 3 years than America did in the whole of the 20th century (Yale, 2019)

  • Sand and gravel make up 65-75% of concrete
  • For every tonne of concrete, 10 tonnes of sand is needed 
  • Each year 4.1 billion tonnes of concrete are used in construction
  • Construction alone is responsible for draining 41 billion tonnes of sand from riverbeds, beaches and lakes each year, enough to build an 89ft wide by 89ft high wall around the world (CNBC, 2021



Why is this such a big problem?

Sand mining is responsible for 85% of the world’s mineral extraction and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t sustainable. It’s one of the least regulated industries in the world which is exacerbated by “weak governance and corruption [leading] to widespread illegal mining.” Pascal Peduzzi, UNEP (Yale, 2019)

Sand is formed by rocks breaking down into tiny pieces which makes it a fossil resource. It takes aeons to form and has the perfect angular shape for binding and compacting (Sand Stories, 2018). We’re consuming this finite resource at a rate which will deplete all natural reserves by 2050 (Leung, 2019).

To feed the appetite for sand, rivers, lakes and beaches are drained of their natural stocks using sand dredging methods and surface mining sees landscapes gauged out as layers of vegetation, soil and stone are stripped back to access deposits. 

The Black Market and Sand Mafias

Illegal sand mining is the World’s third largest crime. Tales of corruption and murder are rife within the world of sand mining. In some countries, mining for sand is as valuable as mining for gold which has caused corrupt law enforcement and politicians to get in on the act for their own financial gain. The insatiable appetite has led to a black market and even sand mafias with 100 billion tonnes of sand being stolen each year. In the past few years, hundreds of people have lost their lives as a result of the world’s thirst for the resource. (Tech Insider, 2018)

Sand dredging works by digging up the sand at the bottom of lakes, rivers, beaches and sea beds causing a devastating loss of microorganisms affecting the whole foodchain. In addition, normally clean water forms a silty cloud which chokes the remaining aquatic life. This cloud of silt and muck also stops sunlight from reaching the depths where aquatic plants and shellfish live, which makes it incredibly difficult for these creatures to repopulate. These organisms form the core of any ecosystem and disturbing them has a dramatic impact on biodiversity. (Vince Beiser, 2019

Surface mining is also guilty of affecting biodiversity. The top layers of soil and stone are removed to access deposits. Similarly to dredging sand, this removal of the key base of the ecosystem not only strips out the microorganisms at the bottom of the foodchain but has a severe impact on all organisms above them as each layer of animals depletes as a result. (Gavriletea, 2017)

Environmental damage

The dredging of rivers, lakes and beaches undermines the integrity of the surrounding land, contaminates groundwater, changes the course of rivers and lowers the water tables. In turn, this causes landslides, sinkholes and flooding which can devastate the surrounding communities who have become victims of geography when sand miners work without a fundamental understanding of the scientific methodology that is needed to mine safely.

Surface mining has led to deforestation, soil erosion and acid drainage. As deposits are depleting, they are becoming harder and harder to find which is making this method of sand extraction ever more difficult and even more environmentally damaging. (Gavriletea, 2017)


How to Turn Back Time

Using less, it’s as simple as that. If you must build or buy new products ensure they are made with sustainable materials like our recycled products.

Sand is in everything we use, the simplest solution is to consume less so we can reduce the demand for the dwindling resource. If only 10% less people purchased cars then it would save on the production of driveways and garages, reduce the size of road ways not to mention save copious millions of tonnes of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions (Vince Beiser, 2019). A little effort quickly adds up when everyone gets involved. 

There are some alternatives that can be used instead of virgin sand:

  • Glass Aggregate
    Only one third of aggregates are recycled aggregates which is a disappointingly low proportion considering there are many recycling plants capable of creating recycled aggregates across the UK. Glass aggregate has a similar gritty texture to construction sand which makes it a perfect substitute for virgin sand. At our recycling plant in West Lothian we can clean and grade waste glass fines that cannot be used as recycled glass cullet, into high quality recycled glass aggregate.
  • Recycled Sand
    At our recycling plant in West Lothian, we can extract valuable sand from construction, demolition and excavation waste. Using our state of the art recycling wash plant we can clean and grade the sand to create a high quality product ready to be sold back into the construction industry. Each tonne of recycled sand saves 4.575kg of carbon emissions per tonne.
    An innovative alternative to glass developed by students at Imperial College London. FINITE is a material composite that makes use of abundant fine powders that usually do not have a purpose. The material is as strong concrete but can be melted down and remoulded making it the perfect circular resource. (Sand Stories, 2018)

Now that you know sand is a finite fossil resource depleting by millions of tonnes a day, how will it change how you look at sand?