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Story Publication logo July 24, 2017

World Faces Global Sand Shortage

Land reclamation works are on-going at this area of Tuas, Singapore's westernmost area where a new massive container port—the world's largest in the next 30 years—is being built. The port authority is using materials dredged from the nearby seabed and earth excavated from tunneling work on a subway line to cut use of sand by about 70 per cent in the building of this pier—which will be one of four eventually. Singapore has been short of sand for its sizeable and continual land reclamation and construction…

Concrete. Glass. Silicon. Our civilization is built on the most important yet most overlooked...

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The Rutherford sand mine in Tennessee. Image by Vince Beiser. United States, 2017. 
The Rutherford sand mine in Tennessee. Image by Vince Beiser. United States, 2017.


Here in California, officials recently announced the upcoming closure of a mine - not a coal mine, not a gold or silver mine. It is a sand mine on the beach. It's the last beach sand mine in America. Now, I, for one, did not even know that sand was mined. I also didn't realize the context for this decision. There was fear the mine was causing beach erosion, but the closure also comes with the world facing a global shortage of sand. And this could affect your life in ways that have nothing to do with sunscreen or flip-flops. Journalist Vince Beiser has traveled the globe reporting on this, and he came into our studios here at NPR West. Vince, welcome.

VINCE BEISER: Thanks, David, good to be here.

GREENE: Well, it's great to have you. So I was on the beach in California. I know you live out here, too, and probably go often. There seemed, like, an ocean of sand, I mean, for miles. So is that the kind of sand we're talking about here?

BEISER: So we are talking about that kind of sand, yeah. And I know it sounds crazy because there's obviously a lot of sand in the world, and it seems like we're never going to run out.

GREENE: Right.

BEISER: It's also the natural resource that we use the most of after air and water. Whatever building you're sitting in right now, it's probably built mostly with concrete. And concrete is basically just sand and gravel glued together with cement. And also, all the roads that connect all those buildings, those are also made out of concrete. All the windows in every single one of those buildings are made of glass, and glass is nothing but melted-down sand.

GREENE: God, that's incredible. Sand is all around us.

BEISER: Absolutely. And it's even in your pocket right now because the silicon chips that power your computer and your cellphone, that silicon is also made from sand.

GREENE: Where does the sand that's used in construction all come from? How is sand created?

BEISER: Most of the sand that we use in the world is quartz sand, and most of it comes from mountains. And over thousands of years, they get worn down by rain, by wind, by erosion. Rivers carry them down the mountainsides, and finally, they bring them to the beach. That's how most beaches get created is that the...

GREENE: So we're seeing only a little bit of the sand on beaches that exists in the world. I mean....

BEISER: Exactly.

GREENE: ...Like, a tiny fraction.

BEISER: Exactly.

GREENE: Well, so why are we running out?

BEISER: We are building cities at a pace and on a scale that has never remotely before happened, mainly all over the developing world - right? - India, Indonesia, Vietnam. China has used more cement in the last few years than the United States used in the entire 20th century.

GREENE: Are we at risk of running out at some point? Or is it more a matter of moving sand to the right places to feed this demand?

BEISER: There's so much demand for sand right now that we are stripping riverbeds bare. We're stripping beaches bare. We're tearing up forests and farmland to get at the sand. And things have gotten so bad in a lot of places that governments have really tried to crack down on it. As a result of that, organized crime has taken over the sand business. And they do what mafias do everywhere. They bribe police. They bribe cops. And if you really get in their way, they will kill you.

GREENE: Where is that mostly happening?

BEISER: So India is the worst, but in many other countries as well - in Kenya, in Indonesia. There's been violence in China, in Vietnam, in a lot of places.

GREENE: And maybe not people being killed, but here in California, the debate is very real. I mean, the government just shut down the last sand mine...

BEISER: Exactly.

GREENE: ...Over environmental concerns.

BEISER: That's right. So here in California, we used to have sand mines all up and down the coast. And these were, like, enormous dredges that would literally just pull the sand, rake the sand right off the beach. But they realized, well, this is terrible. This is destroying our beaches. So they shut all of them down except one. And just last week, after years of court battles and protests, the county government finally stepped in and shut it down.

GREENE: Well, could something replace sand?

BEISER: Yeah. You can crush up rocks to make more sand. Two problems with that - one is the sand you get is not as good as naturally created sand. Also, it's a lot more expensive. We can recycle some of it, but the really tricky part of that is concrete isn't like glass or like paper. Those are products that are designed to be used once, right? You get your newspaper. You read it. You toss it in the recycling bin. You build a concrete building, you don't use it for one day and then throw it out. That building is supposed to stay there permanently. That sand is taken out of circulation indefinitely.

GREENE: Vince, thanks a lot for coming in.

BEISER: It's a pleasure.






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