Demand for sand is higher than ever before; it is currently the most consumed resource after fresh water. Just like our other treasured and overstretched resources, our finite supply of sand is running out.
The insatiable, unsustainable appetite is forcing up prices and rates of sand theft across the globe. These so called ‘Sand wars’ are the culmination of demand and competition for the resource. In order to minimise environmental damage and curb illegal sand trades, we need to find better extraction practices, or even better, a new sustainable replacement.
Exponential demand for sand in construction
By 2050, an estimated 66% of the rapidly growing global population will live in urban areas. In order to accommodate some 9 billion of these future urbanites, construction is already well underway, not just of buildings and cities, but of entire new islands. In order to make this happen, we need a vast amount of sand.
Needless to say, sand is a billion dollar international market. Countries such as Dubai, who have already emptied their marine sand supply, rely on imports from other countries to fuel their economic growth. Alongside the Asian construction boom, one of the newest, most serious competitors in the fight for sand is the hydraulic fracturing industry.
America is among the top countries in the world who could uncover a significant supply of fossil fuels from fracking. It is, however, a highly controversial method of mining, partly due to the huge quantities of water and sand the process requires.
The USGS also showed the amount of sand used for a single fracking well has risen from 900 tons up to 5,000 tons in the last 7 years, with many companies working on the principle that more sand means more oil. It is not, therefore, surprising that the price of sand has skyrocketed.
The US may be the leaders in frac-sand consumption but those figures are dwarfed by the level of sand consumed by Asia. Expanding megacities saw China’s demand for cement go up by 437% in the past 20 years, while Singapore is recognised by the UNEP as the world’s biggest importer of sand.
Towers of glass and cement continue to spring up on skylines across the world. They have become a badge of progress for developing countries – as have their giant construction sites. Emerson Cranes point out that London’s skyline is punctuated with tower cranes and scaffolding. As well as being a visual marker of prosperity, these sites also create growth by creating thousands of jobs within the construction industry.
Sand is the foundation for all of these giant building projects, without it, construction and subsequent economic growth would be severely stunted.
Another sand consuming trend in Asia that has been draining resources since the 19th century is “reclaiming” land from the sea, building new islands and dramatically expanding coastlines.
A colossal $40bn Chinese development project taking place this year is Singapore’s Forest City. This new urban island will be created using phenomenal amounts of sand from all over the world. Neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia have refused to continue selling sand to Singapore as entire islands are vanishing before appearing again as part of Singapore’s swelling coastline.
The complicated politics of international sand trade and its soaring prices has, unsurprisingly, resulted in some deeply unpleasant environmental, economical and social consequences.
This consumption is causing environmental damage and criminal activity
Collecting sand for use in construction is not as simple as going one of the vast deserts of the world to load up a fleet of cement mixers. In fact, desert sand has no commercial use in construction as the grains are too fine. In order to acquire sand of the right consistency, more invasive, aggressive methods of extraction are required.
Environmental damage through dredging
Both coarse and strong, sand ideal for building development is the product of thousands of years of gentle erosion by water. Rock segments are sculpted as they travel through the world’s water bodies, delivering precious granules straight onto our shores.
Coastal and riverside areas, therefore, become the target for sand mines, legal or otherwise. Removing sand destroys surrounding ecosystems and infrastructures as well as intensifying problems such as coastal erosion, flooding and pollution.
In the UK, there are many conservation measures in place to try and protect the landscape and wildlife from excessive dredging. Other companies are able to avoid environmental damage through using Earth observation, which is becoming increasingly valuable for many sectors including energy. As Earth-i state, satellite data in energy and natural resource projects can assess the impact on the wider environment and ensure regulatory, operational and environmental support.
Illegal sand gangs
India is host to the most prolific battles over territory for sand mining. “Sand Mafias” seize land and control trade through violence and bribery. Their presence has devastating effects on local communities as wells dry up and agricultural development is forced to a standstill.
Last year, Wired released an article titled The Deadly Global War for Sand which revealed some of the horrifying extremes sand cartels are reaching.
Gangs descend on beaches with hundreds of trucks and take away entire stretches of coastline to be sold on the black market. Despite the severe impact this has on immediate environments, the unceasing demand for sand and the lack of legal interference from the Indian government means that sand mafias will only continue to steal and sell in vast quantities. This is likely to keep happening until the laws against them tighten severely, or new methods of sourcing the essential construction ingredient are found.
Recycling demolition waste as a substitute
Man made infrastructure is not only consuming sand at an astonishing rate, but it is also preventing sand supplies from replenishing themselves. Less than 50% of sand and gravel reserves have been replenished in the last five years.
One way to reduce the amount of sand being plundered from the depths of the earth, is to reuse and recycle the construction materials we already have. Each year, millions of tonnes of waste are produced during demolition and construction projects across the world.
Efforts to put this material back into production are gradually increasing. Many construction and industrial removal services in the UK are part of Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP). For companies such as OCS Environmental Services, who specialise in eco-friendly commercial waste removal, the ambition is to salvage and recycle as many demolition-derived materials as possible to make them available for reuse in further construction.
In countries such as India, this environmentally sound approach has only recently been introduced. Indian construction waste currently goes straight into landfill sites – a behaviour that perhaps goes some way to explaining why the sand trade problem here has become so extreme.
An example of a hugely successful recycled building project was the 2012 Olympic Park in the UK. 25% of the aggregate resources came from recycled materials and 99% of all demolition was recycled.
The implications of replicating this model of construction all over the world would be monumental. Premier Platform Lifts, who depend on sand to construct their glass lifts, recognise that ‘green’ construction is now a major industry and that more architects are striving to create workplaces that have a minimal environmental impact.
If recycled demolition waste can become a recognised replacement for sand, not only would this save natural resources, it would also reduce the price of sand, transportation, trade and therefore dramatically impede sand mafia activity.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
Road Trip! How to Choose the Greenest Vehicle for Your Growing Family
When you have a growing family, it often feels like you’re in this weird bubble that exists outside of mainstream society. Whereas everyone else seemingly has stability, your family dynamic is continuously in flux. Having said that, is it even possible to buy an eco-friendly vehicle that’s also practical?
What to Look for in a Green, Family-Friendly Vehicle?
As a single person or young couple without kids, it’s pretty easy to buy a green vehicle. Almost every leading car brand has eco-friendly options these days and you can pick from any number of options. The only problem is that most of these models don’t work if you have kids.
Whether it’s a Prius or Smart car, most green vehicles are impractical for large families. You need to look for options that are spacious, reliable, and comfortable – both for passengers and the driver.
5 Good Options
As you do your research and look for different opportunities, it’s good to have an open mind. Here are some of the greenest options for growing families:
1. 2014 Chrysler Town and Country
Vans are not only popular for the room and comfort they offer growing families, but they’re also becoming known for their fuel efficiency. For example, the 2014 Chrysler Town and Country – which was one of CarMax’s most popular minivans of 2017 – has Flex Fuel compatibility and front wheel drive. With standard features like these, you can’t do much better at this price point.
2. 2017 Chrysler Pacifica
If you’re looking for a newer van and are willing to spend a bit more, you can go with Chrysler’s other model, the Pacifica. One of the coolest features of the 2017 model is the hybrid drivetrain. It allows you to go up to 30 miles on electric, before the vehicle automatically switches over to the V6 gasoline engine. For short trips and errands, there’s nothing more eco-friendly in the minivan category.
3. 2018 Volkswagen Atlas
Who says you have to buy a minivan when you have a family? Sure, the sliding doors are nice, but there are plenty of other options that are both green and spacious. The new Volkswagen Atlas is a great choice. It’s one of the most fuel-efficient third-row vehicles on the market. The four-cylinder model gets an estimated 26 mpg highway.
4. 2015 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
While a minivan or SUV is ideal – and necessary if you have more than two kids – you can get away with a roomy sedan when you still have a small family. And while there are plenty of eco-friendly options in this category, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is arguably the biggest bang for your buck. It gets 38 mpg on the highway and is incredibly affordable.
5. 2017 Land Rover Range Rover Sport Diesel
If money isn’t an object and you’re able to spend any amount to get a good vehicle that’s both comfortable and eco-friendly, the 2017 Land Rover Range Rover Sport Diesel is your car. Not only does it get 28 mpg highway, but it can also be equipped with a third row of seats and a diesel engine. And did we mention that this car looks sleek?
Putting it All Together
You have a variety of options. Whether you want something new or used, would prefer an SUV or minivan, or want something cheap or luxurious, there are plenty of choices on the market. The key is to do your research, remain patient, and take your time. Don’t get too married to a particular transaction, or you’ll lose your leverage.
You’ll know when the right deal comes along, and you can make a smart choice that’s functional, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.
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