Most of us don’t give a second thought to sand. Sandy beaches, desert dunes, something to be sat on, to be played with, to be raked, to be driven (or ridden) up and down on, it gets in our shoes and our sandwiches, it gets whipped in our faces on blustery days. But it is in fact the world’s most consumed raw material after water and an essential ingredient to our everyday lives. And as of 2019, we are facing a shortage.
What does this mean for the future? For the climate, for businesses and for investors around the world?
Sand. It’s used in the construction of buildings, roads, bridges, ceramics, metallurgy, petroleum fracking and even high-speed trains. Along with rock and gravel, it’s used to make glass which is used in every window, computer screen and smartphone on the planet. Even the production of silicon chips uses sand. And now, climate scientists are saying we are facing a shortage which “constitutes one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st century”.
It feels like sand would be the last thing we’d ever run out of - just look at beach holiday snaps on Instagram and you would be rolling in sand, but for construction alone the world consumes roughly 40 to 50 billion tons of sand on an annual basis which is double the amount of sediments being replenished naturally. This consumption is primarily being driven by China, who rack up 58% of today’s sand-fuelled construction boom.
But not all sand is made equal - desert sand which is shaped by wind rather than water is too smooth for construction, which rules out the Sahara. That, plus the nutrient-rich sand and dust from the Sahara is blown by wind currents to fertilise the Amazon rainforest meaning an ecological disaster should this sand be used.
The angular sand from seabeds, coastlines and quarries is what is typically used for construction, as it can lock together in a way desert sand cannot. And this is where the shortage lies. Every year the world uses enough sand to build a 27 metre high and 27 metre wide wall that would wrap around Earth, and if things don’t change, we’re heading towards a crisis.
By seeking new riverbeds and new coastlines from which to source sand we could create an ecological domino effect. Animals from mammals to microbes who need the sand to survive, procreate, hunt and hide will be wiped out, and humans can lose a place to fish and wash - and no one needs a new condo or road so badly it means the end of a whole ecosystem, village or species.
Then you have the battle of the “sand mafia” - unscrupulous types who steal sand from protected riverbeds to undercut the companies who have to adhere to international laws and regulations, and therefore are pricing their sand at a higher cost. These gangs are violent with activists being threatened and even killed for speaking out against them.
But since sand is used in every corner of our lives, we will soon be seeing a change. Globally sand mining is a $70 billion industry, but we will be seeing regulatory change both to undermine the corruption of the sand mafia gangs, but also a shift in how we design and construct buildings and infrastructure to reduce sand and gravel demand.
In 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report that called for a reduction in sand consumption, and for a radical rethink of our infrastructure and construction projects, with a focus on sustainability which must be designed into future projects.
So what does this mean for investors? Multiple Google Alerts to keep abreast of local and global regulatory change, research on more sustainable practices and developments, as well as urbanisation trends globally. It’s about the bigger picture and getting all the facts around each catalyst and each company.
There’s a science to sand mining and a science to being right.