Sand is embedded in the concrete of nearly all the world’s buildings and roads. The glass in windows, laptops and phone screens and now, COVID-19 vaccine vials. While we are swimming in sand, ironically, our consumption makes us hungry for more.
Four years ago, an international group of scientists, including two from Michigan State University, called attention to a looming global sand crisis. An overexploitation of sand, a key ingredient of concrete, asphalt and glass, was damaging the environment, endangering communities and triggering social conflicts.
Now, scientists led by research associate Aurora Torres shine a new light on the sustainability implications of the world’s demand for sand. In the journal One Earth, published online May 21, the team proposes different solutions for meeting these challenges.
“With this paper, we look forward towards what we need to do as a society if we want to promote a sustainable consumption on global sand resources,” said Torres, part of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, or CSIS, and the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. “A drastic problem calls for drastic solutions — truly doing this differently to put aside problems and create pathways to sustainability.”
The unexamined true costs of sand — broadly, construction aggregates production — has spurred the scientists to call for a stronger focus on understanding the physical dimension of sand use and extraction. They also suggest new ways to achieve economic and environmental justice.
The authors of “Sustainability of the global sand system in the Anthropocene” call for a new way of looking at and understanding the interlinkages of sand supply and demand to reduce negative impacts such as depleting natural environments and creating human conflict. Collaborating across the research disciplines made it possible to fit the puzzle pieces into a full picture. Rather than focusing on single sand extraction sites like many studies before them, they take a broad look at the physical and socio-environmental dimensions of sand supply networks — linking extraction, processing, distribution, economics, policy — to gain an in-depth understanding of the stresses on both nature and people.