Living in a beach town, I’m pretty constantly surrounded by sand. It’s in my hair, clothes, and car after a day at the beach and also in my lectures as a graduate student. It seems like a dull topic to fixate on, but most people don’t realize that sand is an important resource, and we’re running out. Those coarse little grains are crucial elements to more products than you would expect—like glass, construction materials, and silicon chips. My phone wouldn’t exist without sand, and sadly, that’s not something I’m willing to forfeit.
This is a hard concept for most people to grasp, especially considering many fortunate folks had summer vacations full of sandy beach time. I’m sure those vacationers did not notice any obvious signs of beach sand shortages because most tourist destinations implement beach renourishment and grooming for the sake of their local economies. My city is currently undergoing an extensive beach renourishment project, and it’s crazy to drive down the sea wall and see the progress being made. I specifically state “beach” sand, too, because there is a distinct difference between the kind of sand you find on the beach and the kind found in the desert. Beach sand is the type that is disappearing, and although it doesn’t seem like a huge problem, it’s rapidly proving otherwise.
“Well why can’t we just replace it with desert sand?” I know, right? Those who live in desert climates are probably appalled that anyone could want more sand in their lives. Unfortunately, desert sand is useless (as these same people will probably agree), at least for the jobs that beach sand performs. If you look at two different samples of sand under a microscope, one from the desert and one from a white sandy beach, you’ll see the difference in structure. Since I’m sure most of you will skip that step, I’ll describe the variances.
Beach sand particles have uneven, jagged edges and diverse shapes while desert sand pieces have been eroded by the wind into small, uniform balls. Due to its texture, beach sand has the ability to stick together like Legos, making it ideal for construction purposes. Using desert sand for the same kind of project would be like trying to make a tower solely out of marbles: sad and pointless. Beach renourishment also requires the jagged Lego sand, so again, desert sand fails us.
I keep mentioning the construction uses for beach sand because that is the main source for worldwide sand depletion. Many articles I have read both in and outside of class describe the struggle in undeveloped countries with large shorelines, like India, that have faced rapid expansion in their larger cities over the past 20 years. The construction industry has boomed, and with it comes a greater demand for materials, including, you guessed it, sand. The environmental impacts of removing too much sand—like erosion, flooding, and habitat destruction—have made limitations necessary. My physical and geochemical marine resources class discussed this issue at length, but our discussion also surrounded another serious problem with sand shortages: the sand mafia.
This caught my attention, so I did further research and found an article on Wired detailing the intensity of the black market for sand. The leaders of this black market, dubbed the “sand mafia,” illegally pilfer sand from the beaches and sell it by the truckload to the construction companies. Wired explained that these mafias have gotten progressively more threatening and violent as the black market continues to grow.
So what can we do? The good news is we are beginning to find alternatives to beach sand for construction and product development. After reading about this global issue, I dug a little deeper (sand pun intended) to see if there were any solutions in the works. They have begun recycling used construction materials, crushing rocks, and using powdered glass in place of sand, which not only solves the original issue, but also promotes good environmental practice within the construction industry. As I’ve learned through all of my marine resources courses, coastal management plans and implementing beach renourishment and conservation efforts worldwide can also contribute to sustaining the beaches we, and all of those creatures who call them home, enjoy so much!
(The Wired article can be found at: http://www.wired.com/2015/03/illegal-sand-mining/)