The Conservation Crisis No One Is Talking About

Coastal sand is disappearing as a growing construction industry sucks up a valuable resource.
A loader dumps sand into magnetized black sand mining equipment along the shore of San Vicente, Ilocos Sur province, in the northern Philippines. (Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters)
Sep 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Beaches around the world are disappearing.

No, the cause isn’t sea-level rise, at least not this time. It’s a little-known but enormous industry called sand mining, which every year sucks up billions of tons of sand from beaches, ocean floors, and rivers to make everything from concrete to microchips to toothpaste.

In the process, conservationists warn, the sand mining industry is damaging ecosystems, changing coastal water flows, and making beaches and communities less resilient to storm surges and floods as climate change accelerates.

“Sand is actually the second-most-used natural resource on Earth, behind water,” said Claire Le Guern Lytle, general director of the Santa Aguila Foundation, which was founded in 2009 to focus on coastal preservation. “It’s a finite resource, and it’s depleting very quickly, but nobody thinks about it.”

“No one ever thought we’d run out of sand,” said Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It’s a devastating problem, but nobody in the U.S. has a concept of it because we go to the beach and see this big wide expanse of sand.” The problem is worse, he said, in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. “They’re basically just sucking the sand up, taking entire coastlines and islands away.”

Most of the extracted coastal sand is used to make concrete and glass, the staples of the construction industry. “The numbers are staggering,” Le Guern Lytle said. “An average-size house requires 200 tons of sand. A hospital requires 3,000 tons. Every kilometer of highway requires 30,000 tons.”

A 2014 report from the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that the construction industry consumed 25.9 billion to 29.6 billion tons of sand in 2012. The numbers are based not on reports of extraction—those reports don’t exist—but on how much concrete was used around the world that year. The U.N. called extraction rates “unsustainable” and noted that the rate of sand mining far exceeds the ability of natural systems to replenish themselves.

The problem is only going to get worse. As the human population grows, the construction industry is rushing to fill the need for housing, roads, hospitals, and other structures. As a result, the use of sand has soared. China’s construction industry has grown so large that it used more concrete between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did during the entire 20th century.

China is hardly alone. A recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the global construction industry will grow 85 percent between now and 2030. China, the U.S., and India, the report found, will account for 57 percent of that growth. Meanwhile, the U.N.’s World Urbanization Prospects report predicts that the cities will add 2.5 billion residents by 2050, requiring the construction of a lot of new buildings.

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It’s not just construction. “Sand is in everything we do,” Le Guern Lytle said. It’s used in products ranging from microchips to tires. The natural gas industry also relies on sand as part of the fracking extraction process. “Sand is used in many, many, many ways that are unknown to most,” she said.

Some of the sand comes directly from the beach, which can damage habitats for sea turtles and birds, but much of it is dredged up off the seafloor by large ships. Le Guern Lytle said that destroys critical breeding habitats for fish and other marine life. “Extracting sand from the sea bottom just dissolves that ecosystem,” she said.

Although much of the industry is legal, sand mining has become so lucrative that illegal activities are rife. Numerous reports out of India carry news of murders and other crimes carried out by “sand mafias” during the course of illegal sand mining activities. Other countries with recent reports of illegal sand mining include Namibia, Morocco, Malaysia, and Israel. “Sand mining is as much a human tragedy as it is an environmental tragedy,” Le Guern Lytle said.

Even as many beaches are mined, others need new sand to repair damage from ever more severe storms. Normally that would require trucking in sand from other sites, but that may not always be an option. “Beaches are the most effective natural buffer from waves, storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis,” said Griggs, who also pointed out their economic and cultural importance. “Here in California, almost half of the roughly $45 billion in the coastal economy comes from tourism and recreation.”

A recent warning from the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association noted that coastal communities may need to start exploring new and more expensive ways to shore up their shores, possibly by importing sand from faraway sources or turning glass back into beach-quality sand.

Although there is just one coastal sand mine in the U.S.—a huge, century-old operation near Monterey Bay that is being targeted by the California Coastal Commission for causing too much erosion—other mines are located inland. Wisconsin, for example, has dozens of mines extracting sand for use in fracking. “About 60 percent of all sand that’s used in fracking comes from Wisconsin,” said Bill Davis, director of the Sierra Club’s John Muir Chapter in Madison. “It tends to be a real nightmare for the people that live around the mines.” The mining process, he said, often releases particulate matter into the air that can choke people’s wells and airways. “It can very easily lodge in your lungs,” he said.

Le Guern Lytle said that although the sand mining problem is invisible to most people, she has hope. “The United Nations report in 2014 was a humongous step,” she said. “The greatest progress now is bringing more awareness.”