Oil’s not scarce, but sand is

© Wolfgang Jargstorff - stock.adobe.com

Sand extraction impacting both environment and climate

Plastics consume comparatively few resources – recycling offers complete solution

People are changing the world at breakneck speed, erecting buildings and creating litter. Ferry ports and airports, roads and bridges, houses and factories, cars and clothes, PCs and smartphones are all devouring natural resources – often at the expense of species-rich ecosystems. A team led by Emily Elhacham of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel recently estimated the consumption of resources over the past 120 years and compared it with the biomass of all living creatures, on land and in water. According to the results, the things produced by people around 1900 corresponded to only about three per cent of the living biomass. Since then, more and more buildings, machines and everyday objects have been added, while the biomass has decreased significantly over the same period. The two became equal in 2020: all man-made structures now weigh around 1.1 teratonnes, or 1,100,000,000,000 tonnes – and this is the same as the weight of all living creatures on the planet, including its 7.8 billion human inhabitants. According to an article in the science journal Nature, this means that for each person on the globe, anthropogenic objects, in other words man-made objects, equal to more than his or her bodyweight are produced on average every week. The research work only considered anthropogenic objects that are still in use; if waste had also been taken into account, parity with the global biomass would already have been reached in 2013.

Only about 0.7 per cent of all man-made things are made from plastics

Most man-made things by far – namely 80 per cent – are made of concrete and other mixed building materials. Bricks and asphalt account for another 15 per cent, metal products for three per cent and plastic articles only for a marginal 0.7 per cent. To produce these enormous quantities of concrete, correspondingly large quantities of sand and gravel are needed. Sand is also used in many everyday items, like computers, mobile phones, credit cards, cosmetics and cleaning products. Most glass products – including window glass, spectacle lenses or bottles and other glass packaging containers – also contain up to 70 per cent quartz sand.

The world’s most important trading commodity: sand

The greatest demand for sand, however, is due to the global boom in the construction industry, especially in populous and economically aspiring nations. According to a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), demand for this versatile raw material has tripled in the past 20 years and currently amounts to 40 to 50 billion tonnes a year. This makes sand one of the most important raw materials traded worldwide. Due to its grain size, desert sand is not suitable for making concrete. This means people are increasingly looking for other sources, often with devastating consequences for a country and its people. The UNEP team concludes that ‘rivers, river deltas and coastlines are eroding, “sand mafias” are thriving and demand continues to grow’. In many countries, the business with illegally extracted raw materials is flourishing. For example, Singapore is securing its coastal zone with the help of sand that has been illegally extracted in neighbouring countries.

Sand extraction is causing massive environmental damage

Besides causing political tension, unbridled sand extraction is causing massive ecological problems. Morocco is a case in point: unchecked sand extraction on the Mediterranean coast could cause around half of all sandy beaches in the north-east of the country to be washed away by 2050, and in some places up to 95 per cent of the coastal dunes could be destroyed. The sea itself is also being robbed of sand: because riverbeds and gravel pits are no longer able to meet the needs of the booming construction industry, it is increasingly resorting to marine sand – with fatal consequences for marine ecosystems and their inhabitants. In mangrove forests, sand extraction is threatening the flora and fauna living there; riverbanks are becoming unstable as a result of sand extraction and consequently are offering less protection against flooding. Not only is the extraction of sand causing considerable environmental damage: its processing into concrete is doing so too. The production of cement – the annual global demand for which is a good four billion tonnes – produces 2.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and thus accounts for around eight per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Plastics, on the other hand, consume comparatively few resources. Furthermore, over 20 per cent of all plastics are already being recycled and experts confirm that this figure can be increased even further.

A circular economy is the answer

Given the growing ecological, economic and political problems caused by the unrestrained exploitation of our resources, the question of a sustainable strategy for the future arises. The Club of Rome’s warnings about the limits to growth are more relevant today than ever before. The solution lies in the avoidance and recycling of finite resources and applies to sand, as the most important building material, just as much as it does to fossil mineral oil for producing plastics. There is an enormous need to catch up here, as the Dutch organisation Circle Economy points out in its Circularity Gap Report 2021. According to this report, only 8.6 per cent of all resources used worldwide are currently reused but the construction industry alone could reduce its raw material consumption by 11.8 gigatonnes by rigorously implementing a circular economy. A circular economy is the ideal solution – for sand as well as for plastics!

Go back