Object of Concern: The Receding Sands
A natural resource is classified as, “materials or substances, such as minerals, forests, water, and fertile land that occur in nature and can be used for economic gain.” People have utilized the abundant resources the Earth has provided since civilization began, but in recent centuries global resources have been reduced from human activity. Unbeknownst to many, sand is one of the most sought after natural resources of the modern urban landscape, having been the key to creating industrialized cities. Sand’s role is often overlooked by policy makers and the general public, as it appears to be a limitless resource to some, however, to create apartment complexes, office buildings, as well as every yard of asphalt road in-between, we need truck loads of the essential ingredient we have come to rely on in modern times (Beiser, 2016). If mining excavations continue unchecked in the pursuit of sand materials, the resource will undoubtedly dwindle in natural abundance resulting in the displacement of countless aquatic species and the worlds intertidal zone.
Sand’s role in modern society is, literally, the foundation of majority of structures we have built and a basis for economic prosperity. Sand and gravel are mined from all across the globe and accounts for the largest volume of solid material extracted internationally. The United Nations Environment Program stated, in 2012 alone, the world economy used the same amount of concrete equivalent to what is needed to build a wall 89 feet high and 89 feet wide spanning around the entire Equator (UNEP, 2014). Not any form of sand will work in construction either, as desert sand has a different consistency due to it’s erosion primarily by wind, rather than the sand along beaches, river banks, or floodplains having been eroded by flowing water. By taking sand from the natural environment the industry causes disarray within ecosystems, further damaging biomes across the globe. In Indonesia alone, two dozen sand islands have disappeared since the beginning of sand mining excavations in 2005, resulting in the redrawing of some international boundaries (Beiser, 2016). On top of islands disappearing, in Vietnam miners have decimated hundreds of acres of forest to utilize the sandy soil beneath. As well as issues abroad, in 2015 the sand along the San Francisco Bay has been ruled a public trust resource by a California appeals court as sand mining operations have been deemed harmful to the ecosystem at Ocean Beach (Dudnick, 2015). The ruling in San Francisco hints at the larger issue, as we are faced with choices that put society before the wellbeing of the environment.
The international demand for sand and gravel is economically driven as usage for the natural resource comes from multiple sectors, ranging from glass, electronics, aeronautics, and the most consumptive being construction. The economic demand for sand results in 47 to 59 billion tonnes mined every year, with the largest and fastest extraction increase from 68% to 85% (UNEP, 2014). Despite being a resource we use more of than any other, besides water and air (Beiser, 2016), finding reliable data on environmental assessments is difficult, primarily the data from developing countries. Another way to estimate the global usage of sand or gravel products is by noting the production of cement for concrete, a statistic reported by 150 countries. For every tonne of cement produced, the construction industry needs six to seven times more tonnes of sand and gravel, based on these numeric assumptions we can deduct that 25.9 billion to 29.6 billion tonnes of concrete are created annually (UNEP, 2014). As well as use in infrastructure, glass products, shoreline developments, road embankments, asphalt pavements, and concrete roads that contribute to the over-all global estimate in sand consumption. By combining all estimates, we can determine the sand usage to exceed 40 billion tonnes a year, twice as much sediment that is carried downstream by all the rivers of the world combined (UNEP, 2014).
The lack of adequate global information on sand extraction limits regulation in numerous developing countries (UNEP, 2014). There is no global standardization for sand mining, with little to no collaboration between marine scientific research establishments and the marine sand industry, creating further confusion with sand extraction statistics. The European Union is one of the few to enforce regulation efforts with sand extraction (UNEP, 2014). The lack of monitoring systems, regulatory policies, and environmental impact assessments has resulted in undocumented and unrestrained extraction of sand and gravel, causing chain reactions that severely damage the environment and ecological stability. Alternative approaches to the extraction of sand are needed within the sand industry to reduce the already strained utilization of the resource. One way to reduce sand usage is by utilizing existing buildings, or recycling building rubble from demolished infrastructure. Recycling glass products, such as alcoholic containers, could prove beneficial in reducing sand consumption. There are substitutes for sand and gravel materials, including quarry dust which can be used in general concrete structures or incinerator ash replacing 40% of the sand in cement on top of having a higher compressive strength than regular cement (UNEP, 2014). DB Breweries in New Zealand has built numerous machines that crush empty glass bottles into a sand substitute, creating an alternative for roading projects, commercial, and residential construction (Mlot, 2017). As well as finding alternatives to sand, we could improve the environmental impact of our current systems by modifying our approach to environmental ethics. Calculating the annual bed load of a river system, the amount of sand that accumulates yearly, could restrict the amount the mining industry takes out of the ecosystem (UNEP, 2014). By studying the environments where sand is plentiful, we can define the limits of the ecosystem to ensure the smallest impact possible when extracting the sand resource.
The undeniably massive quantities of sand extracted every year cannot occur without vast environmental impacts. Consequences of sand mining involve fluctuation in biodiversity, land loss, hydrological function, water supplies, infrastructures, climate, landscape, and natural defenses against disasters. Habitat displacement, or destruction, is inevitable when mining for sand and harms the biodiversity of an ecosystem which could result in a chain reaction along food webs. There is both inland and coastal erosion which causes weaknesses in the physical and ecologic structure of the intertidal zone or along river beds. The loss of sand also effects the flow of water, displacing flood regulations and redirecting marine currents. Water supplies are effected because sand removal operations result in lowering the water table and increasing pollution densities. Infrastructure is damaged by sand operations, including damages to bridges, river embankments, and coastal structures. The transportation of the sand, as well as cement production, also effects the climate with emissions. Landscapes are fundamentally altered as sand removal operations cause coastal erosion, changes deltaic sea structures, quarries, and add pollution to rivers. A more subtle complication involved in sand removal is the decline in protection against natural disasters like floods or storm surges (UNEP, 2014). The coalition of environmental issues has become clearer as the sand industry grows, with a change in how we approach the risks and hazards abroad becoming key in preventing the damage industry has done to the world’s ecosystems as a result of sand extraction.
As the human population continues to grow exponentially, and industry inevitably grows with it, natural resource management will become more critical to humanity’s survival. Resources, such as sand, will decline throughout the world and will not be sustainable for the environmental systems that have been functioning efficiently for millions of years without human interference. The environmental impact of limitlessly extracting resources necessary for humanity’s way of life will result in an unsustainable and unstable future. To ensure society’s comfortable way of existence continues to prosper without abusing the resources the planet provides, more caution and research into resource extraction’s effects on the biosphere is necessary when stripping the Earth of it’s resources.
3. Rudnick, Laura. “Sand mining in SF Bay dealt blow by state appeals court” San Francisco Examiner (November 18, 2015) http://www.sfexaminer.com/ appeals-court-deals-blow-to-sand-mining-in-sf-bay/
4. Mlot, Stephanie. “Machine Crushes Beer Bottles Into Sand to Save New Zealand Beaches.” geek.com (March 3, 2017) http://www.geek.com/tech/ machine-crushes-beer-bottles-into-sand-to-save-new-zealand- beaches-1690917/