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.
Build, Buy, Or Retrofit? 3 Green Housing Considerations
Green housing is in high demand, but it’s not yet widely available, posing a serious problem: if you want to live an eco-friendly lifestyle, do you invest in building something new and optimize it for sustainability, or do you retrofit a preexisting building?
The big problem when it comes to choosing between these two options is that building a new home creates more waste than retrofitting specific features of an existing home, but it may be more efficient in the long-run. For those concerned with waste and their environmental footprint, the short term and long term impacts of housing are in close competition with each other.
New Construction Options
One reason that new construction is so desired among green living enthusiasts is that it can be built to reflect our highest priorities. Worried about the environmental costs of heating your home? New construction can be built using passive solar design, a strategy that uses natural light and shade to heat or cool the home. Builders can add optimal insulation, build with all sustainable materials, and build exactly to the scale you need.
In fact, scale is a serious concern for new home buyers and builders alike. Individuals interested in green housing will actively avoid building more home than they need – scaling to the square foot matter because that’s more space you need to heat or cool – and this is harder to do when buying. You’re stuck with someone else’s design. In this vein, Missouri S&T’s Nest Home design, which uses recycled shipping containers, combines the tiny home trend with reuse and sustainability.
The Simple Retrofit
From an environmental perspective, there’s an obvious problem with building a new home: it’s an activity of mass consumption. There are already 120 million single-family homes and duplexes in the United States; do we really need more?
Extensive development alone is a good enough reason to intelligently retrofit an existing home rather than building new green structures, but the key is to do so with as little waste as possible. One option for retrofitting older homes is to install new smart home technology that can automate home regulation to reduce energy use.
Real estate agent Roxanne DeBerry sees clients struggle with issues of efficiency on a regular basis. That’s why she recommends tools like the Nest Thermostat, which develops a responsive heating and cooling schedule for the home and can be remotely adjusted via smartphone. Other smart tools for home efficiency include choosing Energy Star appliances and installing water-saving faucets and low-pressure toilets. These small changes add up.
Ultimately, the most effective approach to green housing is likely to be aggressive retrofitting of everything from period homes to more recent construction. This will reduce material use where possible and prevent further aggressive land use. And finally, designers, activists, and engineers are coming together to develop such structures.
In the UK, for example, designers are interested in finding ways to adapt period houses for greater sustainability without compromising their aesthetics. Many have added solar panels, increased their insulation levels, and recently they even developed imitation sash triple glazed windows. As some have pointed out, the high cost of heating these homes without such changes will push these homes out of relevance without these changes. This is a way of saving existing structures.
Harvard is also working on retrofitting homes for sustainability. Their HouseZero project is designed for near-zero energy use and zero carbon emissions using geothermal heating and temperature radiant surfaces. The buildings bridge the gap between starting over and putting up with unmanageable heating and cooling bills.
It will take a long time to transition the majority of individuals to energy efficient, green housing but we’re headed in the right direction. What will your next home be like? As long as the answer is sustainable, you’re part of the solution to our chronic overuse – of land, energy, water, and more.
How the Auto Industry is Lowering Emissions
Currently, the automotive industry is undergoing an enormous change in a bid to lower carbon emissions. This has been pushed by the Government and their clean air plans, where they have outlined a plan to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040.
Public Health Crisis
It is said that the levels of air pollution lead to 40,000 early deaths in the UK, with London being somewhere that is particularly bad. This has led to the new T-Charge, where heavy polluting cars will pay a new charge on top of the existing congestion charge. Other cities have taken action too, with Oxford recently announcing that they will be banning petrol and diesel cars from the city centre by 2020.
It is clear that the Government is taking action, but what about the auto industry? With the sale of petrol and diesel plummeting and a sharp rise in alternatively fuelled vehicles, it is clear that the industry is taking note and switching focus to green cars. There are now all kinds of fantastic eco-friendly cars available and a type to suit every motorist whether it is a small city car or an SUV.
Of course, it is the cars that are currently on the road that are causing the problem. The used car market is enormous and filled with polluting automobiles, but there are steps that you can take to avoid dangerous automobiles. It is now more important than ever to get vehicle checks carried out through HPI, as these can reveal important information about the automobile’s past and they find that 1 in 3 cars has a hidden secret of some kind. Additionally, they can now perform recall checks to see if the manufacturer has recalled that particular automobile. This allows people to shop confidently and find vehicles that are not doing as much damage to the environment as others.
With the rise in sales of alternatively fuelled vehicles, it is now becoming increasingly more common to see them on UK roads. Public perception has changed drastically in the last few years and this is because of the air pollution crisis, as well as the fact that there are now so many different reasons to switch to electric cars, such as Government grants and no road tax. A similar change in public opinion has happened in the United States, with electric car sales up by 47% in 2017.
The US is leading the way for lowering emissions as they have declined by 758 million metric tons since 2005, which is the largest amount by far with the UK in second with a decline of 170 million metric tons. Whilst it is clear that these two nations are doing a good job, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to improve the air quality and stop so many premature deaths as a result of pollution.
With the Government’s plans, incentives to make the change and a change in public perception, it seems that the electric car revolution is fully underway.