It’s not the typical product associated with mining, but one that has been in high demand globally. Sand and gravel is being extracted from the Earth at record rates. 335 million tonnes and 330 million tonnes of industrial sand and gravel were dug up in 2018 and 2019, respectively, most of it in the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Industrial sand and gravel, which is high in silica, can be used for glass-making but also for fracking operations, explaining the steep increase of U.S. demand in the last couple of years. The USGS notes that the extraction of these sands is associated with safety and health hazards, namely the exposure to silica, which can damage the lungs. Furthermore, air pollution is caused by fine sand particles, which can also endanger nearby communities.
Another type – so-called construction sand and gravel – is also being dug up with fervor around the world, especially in China. According to the WWF, the country should have used around 22 billion tonnes of this sand variety in 2019 for its cement production.
While no global figures for construction sand extraction exist, an increase in global cement production shows that there is more demand for sand than ever. In 2008, global cement production was at 2.8 billion tonnes, which would have required ten times the amount of construction sand and gravel. In 2019, that number had increased to more than 4 billion tonnes, showing a demand for construction sand and gravel of 40 billion tonnes just for cement production.
China and other developing countries ramping up their sand extraction sharply to feed urban development has also led to increased environmental and safety concerns, as many extraction sites are not managed well and are located near vulnerable ecosystems. Sand extraction, which often takes places near rivers, has led to pollution, flooding risk and erosion, in turn threatening other economic endeavors in the area, like fishing or tourism.