Sand: The Most Important Solid Substance On The Planet And We Are Running Out Of It
Sand is the most important solid substance on Earth. Sand mining is one of the most important occupations in the world. It is not an exaggeration to assert that without it we don’t have our modern civilisation.
Sand is the building block of modernity. It is the foundational input for cement, glass and even silicon, the stuff that builds our computer chips and keeps Hollywood vain. Without sand, we cannot construct the awesome buildings that we do. We would not have the wonderful aesthetics and functionality of glass that we have. And we would, one could argue most importantly, not even be able to produce the semi-conductors which are so integral to our computers and therefore modern civilisation.
Sand is the most abundant solid substance on the planet, but we also use it more than anything else. The only two things that are consumed more than sand is air and water.
We use about 50,000,000,000 tons of sand every year. That is a quantity large enough to cover the entire state of California. Cut out California on a map and then go ahead and try to copy and paste in on other parts of the world. This is the problem of big, stupid numbers. Something which I have laid out elsewhere. But essentially, it’s impossible for us to conceptualise things in the billions that we consume by the dozen.
There are grades to the determine the quality of sand out there. As you can imagine different types of sand serve different purposes. More on this later, but at the root of the issue is sand needed for cement, and as you know, cement is the number one component to city building. And cities are in high demand.
In 1950, about 750,000,000 people were living in cities, today, just 70 years later, the number eclipses 4,000,000,000,000 people who are living in cities. And this number is growing all the time. Urbanisation has been a cornerstone to the developing wealth of the developing world. Nigeria, Mexico, China, India, Bangladesh, and numerous more unmentioned all have 20,000,000,000+ populated cities.
With urbanisation comes demand for infrastructure. Taller buildings, more roads, parking lots, more glass, consumable things, etc. This is the primary driver of concrete sand. We have it now, but we won’t for long.
Grades Of Sand For Sand Mining
- Concrete. The lowest quality, however still rarer than you’d think. Concrete sand must have sharp, defined edges. Exclusively found under water.
- Glass, one step up higher, you need 95%+ pure quartz sand. Lots in Ohio, lots in France.
- Silica, photovoltaic for solar panels, tippity top end of the sand distribution. With purity of 99.99999999999%, spruce pine quartz. For every billion atoms of silicon, you have about 20 atoms of other materials.
Regular construction sand goes for about $5-$10 a ton. Spruce Pine and that fine sand for silica… about $10,000.
Listen To My Podcast Interview With Vince Beiser: Author Of The World In A Grain | Sand Mining
The Problem & Implications With Sand & Sand Mining
Despite the fact that Bondi Beach alone houses more grains of sand than the number of people who have ever existed, it turns out that we still have a woefully insufficient amount of sand available for concrete.
We have giant deserts throughout Africa, Australia, Latin America and Asia and we have beaches lining feasibly every coast on the planet, one would imagine that sand could not possibly be a resource that was in, finite supply.
You are right for thinking so, but wrong in application.
Sand is as contentious a natural resource as water. There are significant underground and illegal operations for this stuff, there are people being murdered and at the rate we are consuming sand at the moment, we won’t have it for much longer.
Vince documents atrocities in India, Kenya and elsewhere as well. Like any like product that is; In high demand, easily accessible, under regulated, and easily hidden. Sand has all the hallmarks for abuse. Black markets and underground economies have formulated the world over.
Entire beaches in Morocco disappear overnight. Giant gangs in India fight over territory, and even wars have broken out in Kenya.
Use Cases For Sand
We use sand for all types of things but topping the list is concrete… and everything large is in some form or another is built from concrete. The roads are made from sand. Glass is made from sand melted down, and it’s not just glass in buildings but think about the glassware around the entire world. The truly wild thing about all of this is that we are running out.
There are grades of sand, not all sand is equal. Sand is not an overnight renewable resource. It takes millions, if not billions of years of geology, erosion and the rest to occur for sand to be created. Sand is very evidently not being replaced at the rate we consume it.
We are stripping bare river beds, seaplanes, beaches and flood plains to get at the sand which causes massive environmental damage. And also such is the nature of enormous demand, these industries attract the worst banditos from the underground.
Sand Mining For Concrete
Desert sand is the wrong shape for use in concrete, this sand was eroded via the wind and so is not sufficient. Whereas the sand found underwater has gone through a different erosion process and as such it is shaped more ideally for concrete. It has more defined edges and corners which is important for concrete.
It is the difference between stacking millions of bricks versus stacking millions of marbles.
Cross all desert sand off the list, what we are left with is the sand found underwater.
On the topic of varied qualities, and strains of sand, something absolutely wild that happens within the sand trade is Saudi Arabia, the land of endless sand dunes, importing into their country for the purposes of concrete and horse racing. Fine, superior grains of sand from Australia and Scotland are imported respectively. Not all sand is equal.
Beaches around the world are having sand imported to their beaches to hold off the erosion incoming from, likely, other sand mining activities far off the same beaches coast.
Insane Quantities From Sand Mining
Every year we use enough concrete to build a 90ft tall x 90ft wide wall around the entire equator. Big. Stupid. Numbers.
While we have not tapped out our sand supplies completely just yet, what we have done is tap out that sand that is most easily accessed. This means that to satisfy the worlds further demand for sand we need to explore in less and less easy to access areas, which consequently means creating more environmental damage. The second, third and fourth-order effects from removing the sand bed from your river is beyond our complexity to compute.
Nature is a finely balanced ecosystem, we cannot be so naive to expect that the removal of one of the ecosystems building blocks would not have wild consequences.
The situation is similar to other exploitative mining. Oil, coal, etc. We are close to tapping out the areas of easy access we have had for so long. Exploration into the arctic, antarctic, fracking and more are becoming necessary to anticipate future demands. The situation is, to the surprise of none, the same with sand.
Sand… It’s Complexities & Geopolitics
Transport for sand is costly, one cubic yard weights a ton. So think about the economics of construction for a moment. Sand is cheap. $5-10 a ton. It is without a doubt I assert that transportation costs would far exceed the cost of goods itself when it comes to sand. What does this mean?
Once you start transporting lots of sand the producers are incentivised to source their sand as close to the construction as possible. Therefore, much of the sand is taken from around the cities and the rivers around cities which also consequently give a lot more for the local city. It is a poor mans catch-22.
Sand is a geopolitical issue. In India, there are sand mafias that monopolise distribution and mining in certain cities. In Morocco, there is evidence of sand theft on a huge scale. I would hypothesise that much of Africa’s glorious coast would be subject to similar treatment. Singapore has a strategic reserve of sand since much of the country is built, rather than conquered. They buy the sand off poorer neighbours who are more willing to partake with precious natural resources for short term gain and long term fail to the point where now these countries have banned sand exports.
The mining process of sand underwater is extremely damaging. By swooping up huge quantities of sand offshore you completely disturb the ocean floor, decimating the ecosystem, but also creating a trough where before was the floor. From this trough, the sandbanks on the beach and the surrounding ocean floor compensates for the trough you created and slides in the balance back an equilibrium. The erosion of our sandbanks then has 2nd 3rd and 4th order effects much similar to what I mentioned above. These are both numerous and unknown.
There must be alternatives to construction, either construction that relies less on concrete, or concrete that relies less on the sand. The story of sand as a natural resource is unfortunately the story of so many of our world’s resources. We consume too much. We consume beyond replacement rates. None of it is sustainable. We need to somehow build our cities at a lower toll.
Let’s not be nihilistic about it!
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