Industry News

Industrialization of Sand Threatens Coasts

For most of us who live or work along the coast, sand is simply sand – a natural commodity easily taken for granted, the beach buffer between the waves and the upland.

But, for many coastal dwellers around the world, sand is hardly taken for granted – because it is frequented taken from beaches and river beds, gone from the coastal system for good once it is trapped in the hard infrastructure of buildings and roads, high-tech devices and low-tech substances. Some experts have even dubbed sand the 21st century’s most valuable natural resource – behind only water and air in the amount used every year.

This industrialization of sand can be difficult to comprehend, until you examine some other facts to put it into perspective:

  • Sand extraction has been deemed a $70 billion industry worldwide.
  • In 2011-2013, China used more cement (whose main ingredient is sand) than was used by the U.S. in the entire 20th century.
  • The sand used worldwide in 2012 alone is enough to build a wall 89 feet square (10 feet wide by 8.9 feet tall) around the Equator.
  • Most of the sand used by international industry has to be obtained from coastal or riverine beds, as wind-shaped desert sand is unsuitable for many purposes.
  • Coverage of a global black market in sand has increased of late, including articles and films documenting the dangers and destruction surrounding sand mining.

Viewing sand as a valuable commodity may be a new perspective for most Americans, but it can be a useful one in the years ahead, as conditions and demands evolve.

For example, seeing sand as a finite resource underscores the need to capture and/or recycle any beach-compatible sand to be brought back to the beach – not lost to sea as the less-cost alternative. This requirement to keep beach-quality in the nearshore system is growing in this country (think of Regional Sediment Management), and should be encouraged at all regulatory levels as a way to keep coasts healthy over the long term in a more cost-efficient manner.

Similarly, better management and use of offshore sand sources is clear when that sediment is viewed as an increasingly rare and extremely valuable resource.

Coastal scientists already know that the more compatible sand is to the sediments it’s replacing on the beach, the better its chances of standing up to winds and waves over time. Soon, it may be necessary to work harder to match that replacement sand, simply to ensure it is used in the best possible situation for long-term sustainability – and that could also mean more emphasis on retaining compatible sand in the nearshore system best suited to it, using engineered methods and more ways to capture it as it moves along the coast.

Just as you would work to keep coastal or river sand in its natural habitat, so too might it become more important to use inland sand resources more wisely. Construction-grade sand from inland sources might be better kept in industrial uses (unless there are no other options), both to take pressure off coastal sources (so they can continue to protect the coast) and to avoid the additional cost and environmental impact that extended truck hauls of inland sand to the coast can bring.

As some U.S. coastal communities start to run out of sand sources with which to renourish their shorelines, more creative alternatives may need to be explored – particularly those which until now had been deemed economically unviable. Whether that means bringing sand in from more distance sources or looking at options to convert sand that has been turned into other materials (such as glass) back into a beach-quality sediment, scarcity may inspire (and require) creativity.

Finally, seeing sand as a limited natural resource may make us all more aware of its value (and potential cost), which should spark more concern over how it’s being used today and how we will rely on it tomorrow.

In the meantime, learn to appreciate your beach (if you don’t already). Rather than taking its value to your community for granted, we must remember to preserve and protect this limited and important natural resource.

It’s better to keep sand on the beach where the biggest thing it’s used to build is a sand castle – not hauling it away to become another skyscraper.

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