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Sand’s End

12 May, 2023

We have our head in the sand when it comes to understanding the demographic, industrial and economical importance of these tiny grains. Recent years have seen the cost of sand rise significantly and 2023 is predicted to see higher than average price increases for sand used in construction. Sales of sand and gravel extracted in the US for industrial purposes rose 78% in value last year. Why, then, is sand becoming so precious? To put it briefly, it’s because while our appetite for sand grows, so too does our awareness of the impact of sand consumption on coastal erosion.

Because sand is a key ingredient of glass and cement, it is present everywhere, from jam jars to global infrastructure projects. Vast land reclamation projects such as Singapore’s Tuas mega port, due to be completed in the 2040s, have caused demand for sand to soar. At the same time, investment in infrastructure in African countries is driving the fastest increase in demand for sand, to build roads, hospital and schools in response to fast growing populations.

Elsewhere, the perspectives are very different: Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand have all banned or limited exports of natural sand because of the environmental and social impacts of extracting it from waterways. Crucially, natural sand resources are increasingly under threat from the consequences of climate change, with rising sea levels driving littoral and dune erosion, placing more and more beaches at risk of submersion. Climate change is expanding arid areas, provoking more sandstorms.  

If the sands of time are running out, what’s the answer? Well, one option is olivine sand. This green volcanic mineral, ground down to the size of sand particles, is not only a cheaper alternative to sand but has also been shown to absorb CO2 very easily. One tonne of olivine sand can absorb up to one tonne of CO2, depending on the conditions, and it works well for fertilising and landscaping projects. Elsewhere, we need to start seriously considering alternatives – concrete can be made from recycled plastic or quarry ash, while there is promising new research to suggest that we can replace sand in glass manufacturing with…recycled glass. The true definition of circularity.

By Flora Gicquel

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