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Page added on July 2, 2018

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Have we reached Peak Sand?

sand mining
CC BY 2.0 Wikipedia/ Illegal sand mining in India

Yet another thing we are running out of.

For years on TreeHugger, we have talked about Peak Everything, having started with Peak Oil. so it seems really odd to talk about Peak Sand. But in fact, we appear to be running out of the stuff. The problem is that concrete is 26 percent sand, and we are still making huge amounts of concrete; according to Neil Tweedie in the Guardian, about 2 cubic meters every year for every man, woman and child on the planet.

China leads the charge in today’s sand-fuelled construction boom, consuming half the world’s supply of concrete. Between 2011 and 2014 it used more concrete than the United States did in the entire 20th century. Aggregate is the main ingredient for roads, and China laid down 146,000km of new highway in a single year.

You would think that we had as much sand as we could possibly use, huge deserts of it. But as noted in our earlier post on this subject, “desert sand has been wind-blown and eroded and evidently smoothed out so that it doesn’t make good concrete.” There has been some research into making concrete with desert sand, but it’s still in the labs at Imperial College London.

burj Khalifa© Tom Dulat/Getty Images/ Burj Khalifa

In fact, even in the middle of the desert, they have to import sand. Tweedie writes :

A textbook example is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper. Despite being surrounded by sand, it was constructed with concrete incorporating the “right kind of sand” from Australia. Riverbed sand is prized, being of the correct gritty texture and purity, washed clean by running fresh water. Marine sand from the seabed is also used in increasing quantities, but it must be cleansed of salt to avoid metal corrosion in buildings. It all comes at a cost.

The problem now is the demand for sand so huge that it is being dug up everywhere, legally and illegally.

Why buy expensive sand, sourced from licensed mines, when you can anchor your dredger in some remote estuary, blast the sand out of the riverbed with a water jet and suck it up? Or steal a beach? Or dismantle an entire island? Or whole groups of islands? This is what the “sand mafias” do.

And if the Chinese and Indians need it for buildings and highways, Americans need it for fracking; the grains of sand hold open the fractures that let the gas flow.

What’s to be done? Tweedie suggests adding plastic to concrete instead of sand and aggregate. “Research suggests small particles of plastic waste – “plastic sand” – can replace 10% of the natural sand in concrete, saving at least 800m tonnes per year.” My suggestion might be to simply use a lot less of the stuff, because the carbon footprint of concrete is a bigger problem than the footprint in the sand. replace it in buildings with wood, and just stop building highways and parking garages for cars, promoting rail, surface transit (no concrete subway tunnels) and bikes. And electrify everything so that we don’t need fracking. Then we can all ride out bikes to the beach.


4 Comments on "Have we reached Peak Sand?"

  1. Sissyfuss on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 9:52 pm 

    We ruin the environment to build huge emblematic monuments to our egos. Our self importance will take us down in the end.

  2. Makati1 on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 10:06 pm 

    In a few hundred million years, there will be no evidence left that humans ever existed. The continents will be smashed together in a new form for the next ecosystem to evolve.

    “The History of Earth”

    We are not the first to exist nor will we be the last.

  3. Kat C on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 3:49 am 

    Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

  4. goat2055 on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 1:42 pm 

    So that means peak glass as well? Is the glass half full or half empty? Things to ponder.

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