While most of us are not aware of it, sand is - after air and water - the third most used resource on the planet. Every house, dam, road, wine glass and cellphone contains it. Even a seemingly endless resource like sand cannot keep up with current demand.
"Sand is not infinite," says Kiran Pereira, founder and chief storyteller at SandStories.org and one of the experts participating in the very first round-table focusing on sand, organized by UN Environment, GRID (Global Resources Information Database )-Geneva and the University of Geneva in mid-October.
Various stakeholders from the industrial, environmental and academic sector came together in Geneva on 11 October 2018 to discuss the emerging issue of sand extraction and solutions to address potential environmental impact. "It is extraordinary that so little attention has been given to this problem," says Bart Geenen, head of the freshwater programme at the World Wildlife Fund - Netherlands.
Fifty billion tons of sand and gravel are used around the world every year. This is the equivalent to a 35-metre-high by 35-metre-high wall around the equator. Most sand goes into the production of cement for concrete (which is made of cement, water, sand and gravel). Cement, a key input into concrete, the most widely used construction material in the world, is a major source of greenhouse gases, and accounts for about eight per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a recent Chatham House report.
Sand is, essentially tiny grains of rock, is also used to replenish retreating beaches and extending territories through, for example, constructing artificial islands (think Palm Islands and The World, in Dubai) or infilling on the coast (Singapore). It is taken from rivers, beaches and the ocean floor. Desert sand, due to its smoothness, cannot be used for concrete.
If not managed correctly, sand extraction from places with fragile ecosystems can have a huge environmental impact. Extraction on a beach may, for example, not only lead to the destruction of local biodiversity but can also reduce the scope for tourism.
Furthermore, huge demand for sand may lead to illegal sand extraction, which is becoming an issue in many places. "Sand mafias" in India, for example, threaten local communities and their livelihoods as well as the environment.
"Sand is used by everybody. We are not here to halt the sector, but work together with all stakeholders on sustainable solutions," notes Pascal Peduzzi, director of GRID-Geneva at UN Environment, who first raised the sand issue in a 2014 report titled Sand, rarer than one thinks.
Innovative solutions being tested
However, innovative solutions are being tested to replace sand in the construction of roads and buildings. Recycled plastic, earth, bamboo, wood, straw and other materials can be used as alternative building materials. The key seems to be to blend other materials with the all-encompassing concrete to give the mixture the necessary stability for a building.
Several countries have already been experimenting with plastic composite roads. The first ever cycle path made completely out of recycled plastic was opened in Zwolle, Netherlands, in September 2018.
Recycled plastic has the potential to become a serious alternative to sand in road-building. Plastic roads are estimated to be three times more durable than traditional asphalt roads. However, they are still in their testing phase as their longevity as well as their environmental impact need to be studied further: small particles of the plastic could eventually find their way into the soil and water through heat, wear and tear, and run-off.
While there is no magic bullet, the Geneva meeting agreed that it is important to raise awareness of the fact that sand is not a limitless resource and that there are possible negative effects of sand extraction. Good practices must be shared and the communication gap between policymakers and consumers overcome.
UNEP-GRID (United Nations Environment Programme-Global Resources Information Database) is working with the University of Geneva to raise awareness. "We are working on finding innovative solutions for sustainable resource consumption and connecting them to impactful awareness-raising at multiple levels," says Anna Cinelli from the University of Geneva. Her fellow student Rebecca Jimenez adds: "At the end of the day it's about finding sustainable solutions that are workable and are accepted by society at large."
The Geneva meeting concluded that the way forward is to collect more data, and to work on implementing policies and standards to protect delicate ecosystems from illegal and environmentally harmful sand extraction. The search for sustainable solutions should start now, the meeting concluded.
For further information, please contact Janyl Moldalieva: zhanyl.moldalieva[at]un.org