Sand: Another Victim of Global Urbanization

Headlined by vertical (and horizontal) sprawl in China, India, and elsewhere, the global building boom requires vast quantities of concrete and asphalt. And to get those materials, sand must be taken from the environment.

1 minute read

March 8, 2017, 8:00 AM PST

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc


Hong Kong Towers

Brian Snelson / flickr

A key ingredient in concrete and asphalt, sand needs to be mined, usually by dredging from riverbanks, lakeshores, and the like. As demand rises, unsustainable extraction can impact ecosystems, natural features, and even human infrastructure. 

Vince Beiser writes, "Just about every apartment block, skyscraper, office tower and shopping mall that gets built anywhere from Beijing to Lagos is made with concrete, which is essentially just sand and gravel glued together with cement."

In China, Beiser chronicles the ongoing woes of Poyang Lake, a key regional site for sand mining. "Different types of sand mining inflict different types of damage. Dredging from river beds destroys the habitat of bottom-dwelling creatures and organisms. The churned-up sediment clouds the water, suffocating fish and blocking the sunlight that sustains underwater vegetation."

Local sand mining fueled our own urban boom. "For most of the 20th century there were many such sand mines along the California coast, but in the late 1980s the federal government shut them down due to the erosion being suffered by the Golden State's famous beaches." In addition, sand mining can compromise the integrity of infrastructure: "a 1998 study found that each tonne of aggregate mined from a California river caused $3 in infrastructure damage – costs that are borne by taxpayers."

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