The Glass And Sand Shortage Is It A Myth
The ongoing surge in demand for sand has made it a scarce commodity. This natural resource is commonly used in computer microchips and construction and is an active ingredient in cosmetics.
The current supply of this material has not been able to keep up with the speed of global urbanization. With prices going from $100 to 265 dollars in under five years.
To address the shortage, M-sand – manufactured sand – has been deemed a suitable substitute for those unable to access natural sand for glass creation and other uses. Even with all the interest in various alternatives, Stanford geographer and environmental scientist Eric Lambin emphasize that “a complete physical sand depletion globally is unlikely.”
How might the sand shortage impact the quality of buildings?
The sand found in deserts is unsuitable as the construction material because it has been eroded by wind, making its sand grains smooth; as pointed out above do not bond well together. That is why the tall buildings of Dubai, a desert city, were built with sand imported from Australia – as skyscrapers require extremely high-quality aggregates. High-income countries will continue using high-quality materials by importing them from distant places, thus offshoring mining impacts and increasing transportation costs.
In countries with high demand for sand and poor regulations, once high-quality deposits become exhausted or inaccessible due to urban growth, nature protection, or farming, sand extraction shifts to low-quality materials with organic matter or salt that, when used for the wrong applications, increase the probability of construction failure and building collapse. Construction failures have been linked to poor sand quality in Haiti following the earthquake, Nigeria, Morocco, Thailand, South Africa, and Italy.
Big picture, it’s important to note that it’s unlikely we’ll deplete sand on a global scale. What we observe are regional sand scarcities – both physical scarcities ensuing when demand exceeds physical availability and economic scarcity resulting from loss of access to sand deposits due to competing land uses or local opposition to mining due to its environmental impacts.
How might this affect the cost of more sustainable materials and designs in construction? Could it be cheaper than natural sand?
The problem is that sand extraction is mainly unregulated. It is, therefore, a relatively cheap resource, even though its extraction causes damaging impacts on land, freshwater, and coastal ecosystems. For more sustainable construction materials to be competitive, regulations on sand extraction must be made more stringent and better enforced. In several countries, organized criminal groups, known as sand mafias, have taken control of the sand trade and don’t hesitate to use violence against anyone opposing their destructive extraction practices. These illegal activities distort sand markets and stifle innovation.
Some have proposed using recycled glass as a replacement for sand. Do you think this is a viable alternative?
The technology to crush glass into a material equivalent to sand does exist and is already in use, for example, as an alternative to sand for pool filters. However, it is more economical and environmentally friendly to wash glass bottles to reuse them as bottles as many times as it is possible rather than transforming them into the sand. And even if all recycled glass were transformed into sand, it would produce nowhere near the 40 to 50 billion metric tons of sand, gravel, and crushed rock used yearly worldwide.
What are some sand alternatives that you have explored or know about?
Instead of mining unconsolidated sediment deposits, fine-grained sand and coarser products can be produced artificially by crushing rocks or by recycling construction and demolition waste such as concrete or masonry. Crushed stone can be equally suitable or superior for some applications, thanks to better mineralogical composition and shape control. It is already the primary source of aggregates in the United States, Europe, and China.
Engineered timber is another promising alternative construction material that contributes to carbon storage, but it is only suitable for low- and mid-rise buildings. These alternatives will only be deployed at a scale once sand extraction is better regulated, and its price will include the environmental externalities associated with its extraction and transport.