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How you use 18 kg of sand per day, and why that's a problem

Tuesday, May 28th 2019, 8:00 pm - Have you ever really looked at your sand?

You might not give much thought to sand until you're looking for the perfect spot on the beach (or trying to clean it out from between your toes afterward), but a United Nations report released earlier this month wants us to do just that. In fact, they say our sand usage is "one of the major sustainability challenges of the 21st century."

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Sand might not cross your mind on a daily basis, but you're relying on it, whether you realize it or not. The report, issued by the UN Environment Programme, calls sand and gravel the "unrecognized foundational material of our economies," mined all around the world and making up the largest volume of solid material humans extract. In fact, by volume, only water usage surpasses sand and gravel. Globally, we use some 50 billion tonnes per year -- about 18 kg per person, per day.

That number sounds staggering, but when you consider where sand and gravel end up (other than between your toes), it makes sense. Without sand, there's no concrete, no asphalt, no glass, and that's just scratching the surface. Sand and silica are used in everything from the automobile industry to cast parts, to water treatment, to the food industry in additives.

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The rising demand for sand has even led to the rise of illegal mining and trading of the substance, a process orchestrated in some regions by so-called "sand mafias" in places like Morocco and India.

Sand's pervasiveness in human activities, and the growing demand for it, is exactly what is raising concerns among researchers at the UN and in other organizations.

"All indications are that we are approaching a future where access to this resource is a critical barrier to sustainability, and the full costs of uncontrolled sand extraction come due," reads the report, which calls for global oversight and the creation of a plan governing the production and consumption of sand resources in the future.

cement use sand UN report Image courtesy UN Environment Programe

"We are spending our sand 'budget' faster than we can produce it responsibly," said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment, in a release accompanying the report. "By improving the governance of global sand resources, we can better manage this critical resource sustainably and truly demonstrate that infrastructure and nature can go hand in hand."

"It is time to treat sand like a resource, on a par with clean air, biodiversity, and other natural endowments that nations seek to manage for the future," ecologist Aurora Torres told Science magazine. "Hopefully this report will contribute to paving the way for more dialogue, interaction, and collaboration between all the sectors and actors connected by sand flows."

Sources: Science | UN Environment Programme |

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