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We are running out of sand and global demand could soar 45% by 2060

Demand for sand, a key building material, could skyrocket in the next 40 years, led by development in Africa and Asia – but not if we reuse concrete and design more lightweight buildings

Environment 24 March 2022

Excavator and dumper truck. Aerial view of loading sand into a truck. A heavy machinery - excavator and truck are working in the sand quarry.

An excavator working in a sand quarry

Anton Deev/Alamy

Humanity’s appetite for sand could soar 45 per cent within four decades, according to researchers who say unchecked consumption risks environmental damage and shortages of a key material for urban expansion.

Growing demand for building sand – which is used to make concrete, glass and other vital construction materials – has already seen the rise of sand pirates, with dozens of islands disappearing in Indonesia as a result of unscrupulous mining.

Xiaoyang Zhong at Leiden University in the Netherlands and his colleagues have now calculated that global building sand demand will jump from 3.2 billion tonnes a year in 2020 to 4.6 billion tonnes by 2060, led by areas in Africa and Asia. The figure is based on a central scenario of future population rises and economic growth, and modelled using estimates of concrete and glass consumption, and the floor area needed in buildings.

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But there is no reliable estimate for remaining sand reserves, so it is unclear if the world can sustain such a big increase. “Sand, and the sand crisis, has been overlooked, creating severe environmental and social consequences. If we don’t act now, we may not have enough sand to develop our cities,” says Zhong.

However, Zhong’s team found that about half the projected consumption in 2060 could be avoided if countries implement a suite of measures, including extending the lifetime of buildings, reusing concrete, creating more lightweight building designs and using alternative materials, such as timber frames.

According to the model, the single biggest reduction in sand use could come from more efficient use of space: allocating less floor space per person in buildings, sharing offices, and so on. “It’s hard to say how realistic [these measures] are. But we want this to happen,” says Zhong.

The research only looked at sand used for glass and concrete in buildings, so is an underestimate of total future demand. Granular data on sand consumption for the 26 world regions studied is also lacking, and not detailed enough for country-level breakdowns.

Failure to act will exacerbate existing environmental pressures on reserves of sand in lakes and rivers first, but absolute shortages shouldn’t be ruled out, says Zhong. “It would be very questionable if this surging demand could be met,” he says.

Journal reference: Nature Sustainability, DOI: 10.1038/s41893-022-00857-0

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