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Why Sand Is Essential to Humanity and How We’re Using It Up

Science By
The dredger "Cotes de Bretagne" shoots sand onto a beach of Pyla-sur-Mer in La Teste-de-Buch in Arcachon Bay. The boat, from Brittany, pumps sand from offshore sand bars before shooting it back onto beaches using a technique known as "the rainbow", in an effort to fight against erosion. (Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images)
The dredger “Cotes de Bretagne” shoots sand onto a beach of Pyla-sur-Mer in La Teste-de-Buch in Arcachon Bay. The boat, from Brittany, pumps sand from offshore sand bars before shooting it back onto beaches using a technique known as “the rainbow”, in an effort to fight against erosion. (Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images)

 

What would you guess, after water and air, is the world’s most used resource? The answer is sand. Since the grainy substance is the biggest component in concrete–combined with cement and gravel–it is used in just about every construction project from Dubai to Hong Kong. In the last half-century, the world’s sand consumption has ballooned due to exploding urban growth, particularly in developing countries. In China alone, more cement was used from 2011 to 2013 than the United States used during the entire 20th century.

This unprecedented use presents a problem since usable sand, like any other non-renewable resource, is finite. In general, the material used in concrete comes from oceans, rivers, and other large bodies of water. Vince Beiser wrote a column in The New York Times exploring the environmental impact of the $70 billion dollar industry. Here’s his primer on the business:

“It runs the gamut from multinational companies’ deploying enormous dredges to villagers toting shovels and buckets. In places where onshore sources have been exhausted, sand miners are turning to the seas.

“This often inflicts terrible costs on the environment. In India, river sand mining is disrupting ecosystems, killing countless fish and birds. In Indonesia, some two dozen small islands are believed to have disappeared since 2005 because of sand mining. In Vietnam, miners have torn up hundreds of acres of forest to get at the sandy soil underneath.”

Read Beiser’s full case here. To get a better understanding of what goes into sand dredging, take a look at an example of the “villagers toting shovels and buckets” Beiser mentions in the photo essay below.

A worker directs the flow of slurry from a makeshift pipeline pouring through a filter on the banks of a river at a sand dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. The recently-elected National League for Democracy has been vague about its plans for the country. Its economic platform pledged to do things such as expand the tax base and increase foreign investment, without saying how. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A worker directs the flow of slurry from a makeshift pipeline pouring through a filter on the banks of a river at a sand-dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Slurry pours through a filter from a makeshift pipeline on the banks of a river as smoke billows from the rig at a sand dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. The recently-elected National League for Democracy has been vague about its plans for the country. Its economic platform pledged to do things such as expand the tax base and increase foreign investment, without saying how. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Slurry pours through a filter from a makeshift pipeline on the banks of a river as smoke billows from the rig at a sand-dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Slurry pours through a filter from a makeshift pipeline as workers shovel sand at a sand dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. The recently-elected National League for Democracy has been vague about its plans for the country. Its economic platform pledged to do things such as expand the tax base and increase foreign investment, without saying how. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Slurry pours through a filter from a makeshift pipeline as workers shovel sand at a sand-dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A worker controls the raft of a rig at a sand dredging site on a river near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. The recently-elected National League for Democracy has been vague about its plans for the country. Its economic platform pledged to do things such as expand the tax base and increase foreign investment, without saying how. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A worker controls the raft of a rig at a sand-dredging site on a river near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Oil slick floats below a rig at a sand dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. The recently-elected National League for Democracy has been vague about its plans for the country. Its economic platform pledged to do things such as expand the tax base and increase foreign investment, without saying how. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
An oil slick floats below a rig at a sand-dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Slurry from a makeshift pipeline pours through a filter on the banks of a river at a sand dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. The recently-elected National League for Democracy has been vague about its plans for the country. Its economic platform pledged to do things such as expand the tax base and increase foreign investment, without saying how. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Slurry from a makeshift pipeline pours through a filter on the banks of a river at a sand-dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A worker holds a handful of sand on the banks of a river at a sand dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. The recently-elected National League for Democracy has been vague about its plans for the country. Its economic platform pledged to do things such as expand the tax base and increase foreign investment, without saying how. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A worker holds a handful of sand on the banks of a river at a sand-dredging site near Kengtung, Shan State, Myanmar. (Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)