Sand: The Forgotten/Disappearing Construction Material
When you hear the words “construction materials,” it is only natural to think of the more common commodities, like lumber, steel, or glass. Someone in the industry might also include less popular materials like gypsum or copper. However, a material not often considered is one that directly affects the production of a number of vital materials: sand, which is in short supply globally.
When it comes to raw materials, sand only trails water as the most used commodity in the entire world. In the construction industry alone, between 40 and 50 billion tons of sand is used every year. The demand is so strong that sand pirates have stolen entire beaches overnight and islands have completely disappeared from illegal mining.
CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS MADE WITH SAND
Among the many products that are produced with sand, the more prevalent ones used in construction tend to be concrete, glass, and plaster. Considering that all three of these materials are found in almost every construction project across the globe, many general contractors are monitoring the sand shortage situation closely.
WHAT TYPE OF SAND IS NEEDED?
For those unfamiliar with sand’s role in the production of construction materials, they may wonder how it’s possible to have a shortage of sand. In the United States alone, there is more than 86,000 square miles of desert, which is less than 1 percent of the total sandy deserts on Earth.
However, the sand in deserts is very fine and smooth, so the ability for the grains to bond is basically non-existent, rendering them completely ineffective for the production of materials like concrete. Even cities like Dubai, which are surrounded by vast deserts, have to import sand from countries like Australia to construct their buildings.
The sand used in the production of construction materials is mainly extracted from riverbeds, lakes, oceans, and beaches. This type is known as marine sand.
HOW MARINE SAND IS CREATED
Most of the sand that you find on beaches is primarily made up of quartz and mainly originates in rivers and streams. Erosion takes place in these waterways and the sand that is produced is carried to the ocean where the waves break it down even further. The hard pounding of the water currents and waves against the rocks creates a type of sand with jagged edges, allowing it to bond together easier. This process is what makes marine sand better suited as bonding material than that of desert sand, which is roughly all the same size and smoother because it is moved by the wind.
EXTRACTION’S EFFECT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
This process of extraction is not very eco-friendly as it creates unnatural erosion, destroys ecosystems, and pollutes waterways. Citing environmental concerns, specifically erosion, the State of California, under pressure from local activists, forced the CEMEX Lapis plant in Monterey to shut down its operation. This was the last coastal sand mine in the United States.
LACK OF REGULATION
Unlike other commodities, sand has very little to no regulations, depending on what part of the world you are in. This is what ultimately makes it a cheap commodity in comparison with others. Other than ocean mine operations, which is a little more involved, it is fairly easy to extract sand and transport it.
Due to the lack of regulations, sand can theoretically be mined by anyone who has a shovel and a bucket and it often is. However, they do have to compete with the large companies who have the proper machinery for such operations.
It may sound like something from out of an apocalyptic movie, but sand pirates are very real, although in some areas, like India, they are referred to as sand mafias. These organized gangs have been known to remove entire beaches literally overnight. Over time, we have seen entire islands disappear due to erosion because of illegal sand mining operations.
There is no differentiating between pirates and sand mafia, as both often rely on intimidation through violence to carry out their mission. There are plenty of instances where bribes were offered and murders were committed by the sand pirates who operate on black markets all over the world. From the Caribbean, to India, to the Far East, sand pirates have murdered journalists, law enforcement officials, and environmental activists.
WILL WE RUN OUT OF SAND?
Another negative byproduct of having no regulations is that there is no inventory of just how much sand is actually out there. What we do know is there is not an infinite supply and mining it can have catastrophic effects on the environment depending on where and how it is sourced.
Nearly a third of the construction on the entire planet is happening in China, where they produce more concrete than the rest of the countries in the world combined. From 2011 to 2013, China used more concrete than the U.S. did in the entire 20th Century. This, of course, means they use a large amount of sand for their concrete.
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently released a report where they make 10 recommendations to solve what they call a “crisis” in the sand industry. Among their recommendations are “recognize sand as a strategic resource”; “map, monitor and report sand resources”; “restore ecosystems and compensate for remaining losses”; and “source responsibly.”
Arguably the most important recommendation from UNEP states, “Establish best practices and national standard, and a coherent international framework.” Organizing the international community to regulate the sand industry is tantamount to solving all of the other present issues.
ALTERNATIVES TO SAND
Crushed rock can be recycled from demolition sites to make products that are historically made from sand. Another emerging alternative to concrete and steel in construction is engineered timber.
Lendlease recently completed 25 King, the tallest and largest engineered timber building in Australia. While the building does have a concrete base for the first two floors, the next nine floors are all constructed from engineered timber. As more products like engineered timber come to market, the construction industry’s reliance on scarce materials like sand will begin to wane.