Sand isn't just for beaches. The tiny grains show up in many products of the industrialized world: in the glass and concrete that build cities, in detergents and cosmetics that people use daily, and in the silicon chips and solar panels of advanced technology. But sand comes from rocks that take thousands of years to erode into fine particles, and humans are using it faster than they should, reports Autumn Spanne for Mental Floss.
The clamor for sand is so great in fact, that organized crime has sprung up around sand mining. On the fringes of Bannerghatta National Park in southern India, trucks filled with sand mined near the protected forest attempt to sneak their loads past officials in the dead of night. Bosky Khanna reports for the Deccan Herald that park officials sized 17 trucks last weekend and fined each 25,000 Rupees (almost $400). But the demand for sand in the nearby cities is high enough that the illegal mining continues.
This problem arises because not all sand is suitable for human uses. About 70 percent of all the sand on earth is made of quartz grains created by weathering, writes Vince Beiser for Wired, which is the kind our idustries need. Concrete is the biggest gobbler of these grains — which typically come from rivers and beaches because desert sand is too fine and round to hold together well. And sand mining in these places has some serious downsides. Spanne writes:
No matter where it occurs, sand mining has a tremendous impact on the environment. It causes flooding, leads to biodiversity and land loss, damages infrastructure like bridges and embankments, pollutes rivers and groundwater, and destroys beaches. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with sand extraction and transport take a significant toll as well.
The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that between 52 and 65 billion tons of sand are mined every year around the world — a number that’s hard to pin down because many countries don’t track sand mining and some of it is illegal. For Wired, Beiser reports:
Today criminal gangs in at least a dozen countries, from Jamaica to Nigeria, dredge up tons of the stuff every year to sell on the black market. Half the sand used for construction in Morocco is estimated to be mined illegally; whole stretches of beach there are disappearing. One of Israel’s most notorious gangsters, a man allegedly involved in a spate of recent car bombings, got his start stealing sand from public beaches. Dozens of Malaysian officials were charged in 2010 with accepting bribes and sexual favors in exchange for allowing illegally mined sand to be smuggled into Singapore.
The "sand mafias" in India are particularly prevalent, Beiser writes. Efforts like those taken by the Bannerghatta National Park officials are, slowly, pushing back against illegal sand mining. But when the resource can be scooped up in a bucket from the river bank, quashing the sand mafias is hard.
Aside from cracking down on sand mining, Spanne mentions a few technological fixes that might lessen the demand for sand:
Researchers are also developing natural sand alternatives. A team of engineers based in the UK are trying out a new concrete formula in India that replaces some sand with tiny plastic particles. And breakthroughs in self-healing bioconcretes are helping to extend the life of structures that would require a lot more sand to rebuild.