If you suffered through 'Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones' when it came out nearly 20 years ago, you might recall Anakin Skywalker's famous line, "I don't like sand. It's coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere." For those of you who had quietly supressed all memory of this cinematic gem (54% on Metacritic), I'm sorry for bringing it up, but there are very few novel ways to introduce the topic of 'sand' and a seemingly uncountable number of Star Wars films. There's a fitting analogy here, I'm sure…
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Unfortunately for young Skywalker, sand is big business. Sand is the most used natural material in the construction sector, by far. According to the OECD, sand, gravel & and crushed rock account for more than half of the total minerals consumed in the global construction sector. As of 2017, consumption lay just shy of 30 gigatonnes, but this figure is expected to rise to roughly 55 gigatonnes by 2060. Much of this demand comes from emerging economies as they seek to build the required infrastructure for their burgeoning populations. Jean Château, an economist at the OECD was quoted by the Financial Times as saying: "Emerging economies are playing catch-up. They need to build infrastructure, roads and houses […] There's absolutely no substitute. You need rocks and sand to build the world. You cannot build a world in plastic."1
Compounding the problem is that abundant desert sand (as might be found in places like Tatouine, Tunisia) is unsuitable for use in construction. Consequently, most construction sand comes from quarries, but rising demand is seeing increasing amounts of sand be drawn from more environmentally sensitive sources, such as rivers, lakes and coastlines. Sand mining in these areas can harm fragile ecosystems, fisheries and aquifers. Additionally, the low cost of entry to the sand mining business (handtools and a truck are often enough) coupled with rising prices, has driven a surge in illegal and unscrupulous operations.
Sand's growing importance as a commodity has seen it become subject to a series of export bans, mostly in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia have all restricted exports of sand at various times, with Malaysia's recent ban coming into force after the country shipped 55 million t of sand to Singapore in 2018. Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, blamed corrupt officials for allowing the sales and accused them of "digging up Malaysia and giving her to other people."
Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom. The 2019 UN Report 'Sand and Sustainability: Finding new solutions for the environmental governance of global sand resources' suggests three main solutions: 1) Avoiding unnecessary natural sand consumption; 2) Using alternative materials; and 3) Reducing sand extraction impacts with existing standards and best practices. For (much) more detail on these solutions, you can access the full report here: https://bit.ly/300j3ip
- Bruce-Lockhart, C., 'Huge demand for sand raises sustainability fears', Financial Times, 31 December (2019), p.5