Is Time Running Out for Sand?

Given the amount of sand we’re currently trying to remove from the mouth bar of the West Fork, this post may seem counter-intuitive to many. However…

Worldwide, sand is becoming scarce according to a number of recent reports and articles from respected sources. And as the scarcity transforms economies, it also transforms our environment.

Sand mine complex on the west fork of the San Jacinto adjacent to Kingwood.

Many now question the sustainability of an economy built on sand extraction from rivers and are exploring ways to reduce our dependence on that source … or import sand from places that are still producing it faster than they are using it.

Sand from Greenland?

An article in the New York Times points to people who are actually researching the feasibility of exporting sand produced by Greenland glaciers to Europe where river mining is outlawed in many countries. Such an endeavor would raise the cost of sand.

The article quotes Jason C. Willett, a minerals commodity specialist with the United States Geological Survey. “Currently almost all sand is mined within 50 miles of where it is used,” he said. “Once you move it any distance, it then costs too much.”

Regardless, the world makes so much concrete (more than 10 billion tons a year), that producers are investigating new ways to supply demand. Population is forecast to grow by more than 25 percent by 2050. “That makes sand, which is about 40 percent of concrete by weight, one of the most-used commodities in the world, and one that is becoming harder to come by in some regions,” says the Times.

Sand Extracted Faster than Nature Replacing It

Another article in the July 2019 international journal of science called Nature claims, “Sand and gravel are being extracted faster than they can be replaced.”

The article goes on to say:

  • Sand and gravel make up the most extracted group of materials, even exceeding fossil fuels1.
  • Urbanization and global population growth are fuelling an explosion in demand, especially in China, India and Africa2.
  • Roughly 32 billion to 50 billion tonnes are used globally each year, mainly for making concrete, glass and electronics3. (Note: this number is higher than the one quoted above but also includes additional uses.)
  • This exceeds the pace of natural renewal4 such that by mid-century, demand might outstrip supply2.
  • Desert sand grains are too smooth to be useful, and most of the angular sand that is suitable for industry comes from rivers (less than 1% of the world’s land)5.
  • This extraction of sand and gravel has far-reaching impacts on ecology, infrastructure and the livelihoods of the 3 billion people who live along rivers3,6,7

For example, the Nature article says, “In the Mekong delta, the Vietnamese government estimates that nearly 500,000 people will need to be moved away from river banks that are collapsing as a result of sand mining in the channel.”

Likewise, in Bangladesh, the Umngi River expanded when people started mining sand from the river bid.

From the July 2019 issue of Nature

UNEP Questions Sustainability

Another recent report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says, “Shifting consumption patterns, growing populations, increasing urbanization and infrastructure development have increased demand for sand three-fold over the last two decades,” claims the UN Report. “Further to this, damming and extraction have reduced sediment delivery from rivers to many coastal areas, leading to reduced deposits in river deltas and accelerated beach erosion.”

The report also called for reducing demand for sand and gravel through improved designs that cut the amount of concrete in buildings and infrastructure. (Lighter designs would also help address carbon dioxide emissions: Manufacturing cement, the reactive ingredient in concrete, creatives about 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

UNEP also warns that, “To meet demand in a world of 10 billion people without harming the environment, effective policy, planning, regulation and management will be needed. Currently, sand extraction and use is defined by its local geography and governance context and does not have the same rules, practices and ethics worldwide.” The report aims to start a productive global conversation on sand extraction.

“To curb irresponsible and illegal extraction, ” the report suggests a customization of existing standards and best practices to national circumstances.”

To read or download the full report on sand and sustainability, click here.

Difficulty of Change

Like all large scale transformations, this one will not be smooth or simple. The problem with all such reports is that they apply global observations to local conditions. And local conditions always govern actions and economics. As long as it’s cheaper to mine local sand than import it from Greenland, someone will mine it locally.

Those transportation costs can be a killer. In commodity businesses, every penny saved represents a competitive advantage. When you track that penny through the supply chain to the cost of finished goods ( i.e., to a house, a building, or a street, for example), it can have a substantial impact on affordability.

In a highly competitive, free-market economy like ours, producers will always fight to lower their cost of production. Getting them to voluntarily adopt practices that could benefit society is tough.

We can’t even get sand miners to push back 100 feet from the river. 4,000 miles to Greenland is a bit of a stretch!

That tiny problem aside, the value of reports such as these is that they let us develop alternatives before time runs out.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/16/2019

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