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Living Lightly column

Sand scarcity drives plastic innovation

By Graham Parton

Ask a group of well-informed people what the major problems of the world are and chances are climate change is going to be on the list. Plastic pollution might also be there too as we become more aware of just how damaging and extensive this problem is.

A much lesser known problem though is the shortage of sand. The world is rapidly running out of sand, to the point where some countries, Vietnam for example, are about to declare their sand stocks exhausted. Sand is a major building block in the construction industry and is used to make a variety of materials like glass, and most importantly, concrete.

Sand is the second most used natural resource after water and its consumption over the last few decades vastly exceeds the supply.  Just like fossil fuels that have taken millions of years to form and mere decades to use up, sand supplies are becoming scarcer and more costly.

Sand mafias have emerged, particularly in India where sand theft is rampant and has caused the deaths of hundreds of people including police officers and government officials. Half of the sand used for construction in Morocco comes from illegal coastal sand mining.

Most of the sand collected is used to make concrete. If the cement industry was a country it would be the third largest greenhouse emitter in the world after the US and China, producing 5% of the world’s total emissions. Concrete production is accelerating at an incredible rate and shows no sign of slowing down. In two years this century China has poured more concrete than the United States of America used in all of the twentieth century.

But now for the good news, or at least a glimmer of hope. Researchers in the US have discovered that irradiated recycled plastic from drink bottles can not only be used to make concrete, but that the resulting product is up to 15% stronger and more flexible than conventional concrete.

But like electric cars, inventing the solution is only the first part. Now it’s necessary to make it cost competitive with raw sand, market the idea, set up the supply chains, regulate the sand mining industry and spread the production technology as widely as possible. Worth a shot though isn’t it?