Sand is formed from rock debris that have weathered and eroded for thousands to millions of years. Its process often starts on top of mountains and ends in coastlines after taking long journeys through rivers, where they break down as they go by. Its tan color is caused by iron dioxide, which tints the sand in different colors based on the type of rock. For example, quartz sand tints light brown, and other types of sand, such as black sand, is formed out of dark-colored rocks or lava.
In Puerto Rico, when people think of sand, they may connect it to the numerous beaches that grace its coastlines. Many would also think of its popularity as a tourist attraction and how much has been disappearing because of erosion. One example could be Ocean Park, which has been decreasing in size for some time. Many people would connect the beach as important to sea turtles, which use it as a nesting ground, or how it helps protect adjacent neighborhoods from the forces of Mother Nature.
What many don’t know is that sand plays a much bigger role in the world, especially in the industrial world.
What Is Sand Used For?
Apart from being used as a building material for sandcastles, sand plays a key role in the manufacturing of other items. For instance, concrete, a major construction material, is made from the mixture of sand and gravel. Glass is nothing but sand that’s been crystalized. Even the silicon chips inside phones and computers hold sand in them. Sand can be found everywhere around the world, from sidewalks to computers, which makes it an essential resource.
However, according to Vince Beiser, author of 'The World in a Grain,' sand is starting to run out.
When people think of running out, they might think that the world’s amount of sand is decreasing. In truth, according to Beiser, sand is “the most abundant thing on the planet. But we are also using way more of it than ever before in human history.” The way humans use sand is at a height compared to the levels humans use air and water. It is estimated that mankind uses 50 billion tons of sand per year and, even though there is still so much of it out in the surface, most of it is useless.
The Worthlessness of the Sahara
The Sahara is the world’s largest desert, filling almost all northern Africa with a total area of roughly 3,320,000 square miles, which sometimes tends to expand or contract. When it comes to sand that can be used to build things, the Sahara may seem like a solution.
But it’s not.
Beiser claims that when it comes to desert sand, “the actual grains are shaped differently than sand grains that you find at the bottom of rivers or on beaches. It’s been eroded by wind rather than water for millions of years.” Due to the extreme dryness and smoothness, desert sand is useless when it comes to making concrete, which requires rough sand to make proper bonds.
The “Sand Mafias”
Because sand is a key manufacturing ingredient for many items and it’s starting to run out, there has been an increase in black-market trade for this material. Sand mafias, which are not the Hollywood-type Italian mobster families that the world associates with, are a group of mafias that are small, defragmented, and whose income stems from the illegal selling of sand.
Many people are involved in this business, from small-time fishermen to big corporations looking for cheaper ways to acquire sand.
These sand mafias have been around before, but with the rising demand for sand, the number of organizations has been increasing. Beiser explains that at the rate of urban development, especially in Asia and Africa, the demand won’t be going away any time soon. With urban development rising, the need of sand will rise and so will the number of sand mafias.
Damage to the Environment
Sand is being excavated at the same rate that oil is being drilled. With oil becoming harder to find, many are drilling offshore to get deeper into the earth to find it. When it comes to sand, like drilling for oil, it tends to bring problems to the environment.
“In the quest for usable sand, people are doing a lot of damage to rivers and lakes and wetlands.” Like oil, the world will not run out of sand, but people are doing a lot of damage to meet up the demand of sand.
Sand Alternative: Mass Timber
Today, there is research going on about finding sand alternatives, such as bamboo or recycled materials, which could be used to create concrete. However, any solution will require the same scarce management resource. "We need to find a way to use less of it, use it better, and in ways that will last longer."
One promising concrete alternative is the oldest building material man has ever used: wood.
It’s possible to create carbon-negative buildings with wood, which contains more carbon than their creation process emits. This does require the need of sustainable approaches of growing and harvesting trees, but it also means using new and different types of wood products.
The so-called “mass timber” products, created by recombining smaller pieces of wood, are being used in everything, from bridges to skyscrapers. Mass-timber doesn’t require cutting down big trees, which means wood can be grown and harvested faster. There have been some worries about possible fire hazards, but heavy composite timbers are surprisingly resistant to flames because of their thickness.
Whatever opinions the public may have on sand, it doesn’t change the fact that sand is an important aspect of the industrial economy. With the demand of sand rising for various purposes and the intense damage caused by sand excavations, alternative solutions must be searched and developed for. But two questions must be answered when it comes to manufacturing sand-based products or sand-alternative products: how much are we going to produce and how much will we use?