All around the world, the demand for sand is more intense than most would ever suspect. The importance of sand in our lives is not known by the general public, although it's a common misconception that there's plenty of sand and always will be. It wasn't too long ago that it was thought there were enough fish in the world's oceans to feed us forever, but ask any commercial fisherman how stocks are holding up and you'll no doubt receive a dismal report. For sand, the problem of depletion is even worse and doesn't look to get better anytime soon.
It's gotten to the point where, in many places around the world, the demand for sand is outpacing the supply. And once the sand is gone, it's gone for good. You might think that, with all the world's beaches and especially all its deserts, we'd have enough sand to last many lifetimes. Think again.
Even in a City Surrounded by Sand
Sand and gravel, known in the construction industry as “aggregate,” is the most mined substance in the world, estimated by a 2014 U.N. Environment Report as being responsible for as much as 85% of all the world's mining activity. Some estimates put the annual sale of sand alone at as much as US$70 billion worldwide.
Aggregate is used in many construction and manufacturing activities, including the making of concrete, asphalt, and glass, three of the most needed items used in urban construction. And, with a decades-long building boom currently in progress, requirements for aggregate, especially sand, have never been greater. The city of Dubai, the largest in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a good example. On a building bender for the best part of two decades, and now home to the tallest building in the world (think sand and gravel for concrete and glass), they've had to import their construction sand despite the fact that they're located in the Arabian Desert! The world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa, was built with sand imported into Dubai from Australia.
Not All Sand's the Same
The problem with desert sand, when it comes to construction purposes, is that the grains are too smooth and round, having been eroded by desert winds. It makes lousy concrete because good construction sand needs to have irregular, angled surfaces in order to be a good binding agent. The best sand for construction is washed down from the mountains, where rocks have been eroding for eons. That sand washes down the mountainsides into the rivers and on down to the oceans. Much of the sand being mined today, often illegally, is coming from river beds and ocean beaches, which causes direct damage to those ecosystems as well as the environment as a whole.
Demands are Only Increasing
Most of today's sand demand stems from Asian countries, with China leading the pack. It's been reported that between 2011 and 2014 more than 32 million houses were built and 2.8 million miles of road were laid in China. China currently accounts for about one-half of the world demand for sand, with most of that going into construction. Keep in mind it's also needed for a great number of manufacturing and industrial applications including everything from the making of computer chips and toothpaste to fracturing shale oil deposits or building artificial islands like China is currently doing in the South China Sea.
Another huge consumer of sand is the country of India. With sand deposits near large urban areas like Delhi and Mumbai now exhausted, construction companies are having to go far afield to remote areas to find more and a “sand Mafia” has developed in that country where sand is being illegally mined and then sold on the black market. According to the government, plans are to build another 60 million homes in India in the next six years. The amount of sand needed for construction since 2000 is thought to have tripled. China is reported to have used more cement just between 2011-2013 than the United States used in the entire twentieth century.
How About a Substitute?
In the past, sand mining was done in rural areas but not too far removed from urban centers where it was most needed. Nowadays, no one wants it mined in their backyards and sand mining permits are exceedingly difficult to obtain. Some areas have banned the process altogether.
A great alternative exists in the form of machinery capable of producing sand suitable for construction use through the process of crushing rock and aggregate waste material. With a single pass, this one-of-a-kind stone crushing machine can produce high-quality sand utilizing a high-impact crushing process that requires no grinding and no compression. This is a great, green alternative for filling the void of our disappearing sands.