Sand mining’s hidden environmental cost

Sand mining's hidden environmental cost

Sand mining's hidden environmental cost

Popular beaches in northern Germany have been left in a rough state after enduring heavy winter storms. In order to restore the shoreline, it is necessary to obtain fresh sand. However, this sought-after resource can lead to additional challenges.

The recent winter season brought heavy storms and flooding, particularly in late December, causing significant damage to protective sand dunes and bathing beaches on Germany’s North Sea islands.

Popular tourist destinations like Sylt, Borkum, and Norderney will require extensive reconstruction efforts before the summer season.

The process of beach nourishment will involve transporting large amounts of sand to restore the eroded coastlines. The state government of Lower Saxony, home to Borkum and Norderney, has pledged financial support of up to €700,000 (approximately $760,000) to reinforce the region’s vital tourism industry.

Does beach rebuilding pose environmental risks?

Sand mining's hidden environmental cost

When it comes to replenishing North Sea beaches, the sand used usually doesn’t have to travel too far. In the past, it has been sourced from nearby areas or neighboring islands. As one official mentioned in 2017, the sand may have moved, but it’s still there.

For instance, the island of Sylt has been replenishing its beaches with sand from the ocean floor for the past four decades.

Dredging ships collect a mixture of sand and water from the seafloor, approximately 8 kilometers (5 miles) away from the shoreline. The process deposits this sand on the beach and in offshore reef zones, effectively reducing the force of incoming waves.

While this method is better than importing sand from faraway places, it does have consequences for coastal and river ecosystems. Scooping up large amounts of sand can harm underwater life and disrupt nesting sites for birds and other animals.

Removing sand from the ocean floor can lead to coastal erosion and landslides, especially with the current impact of climate change. This process causes the beach to recede further, and even beach nourishment is only a temporary solution. Eventually, the added sand will wash away, requiring more to be replenished.

To prevent the negative effects of offshore dredging, sourcing sand from inland sand mines, quarries, rivers, and lakes is an alternative. However, it is crucial to match the sand’s composition with the specific beach to avoid harming the environment and the flora and fauna that rely on that particular sand type.

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Why is sand a critical resource?

Sand is an incredibly valuable resource for various reasons. After water, it is the second-most-utilized resource globally, as stated by the UN Environment Program. Its significance extends beyond beach restoration, as it plays a crucial role in the construction industry. Regular sand, which consists of a natural blend of crushed rock, minerals, and organic material found in lakes, rivers, and oceans, is essential for producing glass and concrete.

Moreover, sand actively contributes to creating new land in densely populated cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, addressing limited space challenges. These metropolises rely on sand to expand their territories and accommodate their growing populations.

Silica, a specialized sand, plays a crucial role in silicon production. Silicon is a vital component in the manufacturing of circuits and microchips, making it indispensable in the technology sector.

Germany, among other countries like the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, and China, is a significant importer of sand. In 2022 alone, Germany imported approximately 1.55 million metric tons (1.71 million US tons) of both regular and specialized sand, according to Statista, a data-gathering platform. This places Germany among the top 10 sand importers globally, highlighting the widespread demand for this valuable resource.

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What are the alternatives to sand?

Sand mining's hidden environmental cost

Despite the presence of vast sandy deserts such as the Sahara, which spans approximately 9 million square kilometers (3.6 million square miles), a significant portion of the sands found there is unsuitable for industrial purposes. This is because the wind-smoothed desert sand is not the right shape and size. Only the rough sands particles found at the bottom of rivers, lakes, and the sea possess the necessary binding properties to create durable concrete and other products.

The global demand for sands is on the rise, partly due to rapid urbanization and digitization. According to data from the United Nations, sands mining has more than tripled in the past two decades, reaching over 50 billion metric tons annually.

The United States stands as the largest exporter, having shipped nearly 6.3 billion tons in 2022. This accounted for approximately 31.5% of global exports, surpassing the export volumes of other leading exporters like the Netherlands (12.4%), Germany (8.2%), and Belgium (5.9%) by a significant margin.

The heightened demand for sand has resulted in an increase in illegal dredging activities in countries such as India, Vietnam, and China, where environmental and labor regulations may not always be as stringent.

Even in sanctioned mines in key exporting nations such as the United States, Malaysia, Europe, and Canada, the extraction of sands can have detrimental effects on biodiversity, marine currents, and water tables. This process can lead to increased erosion, resulting in the destruction of coastal areas and heightened vulnerability to severe weather conditions. Furthermore, mining activities contaminate water sources, while the transportation of sands contributes to carbon emissions.

However, there are alternatives to sands mining. Glass can be recycled and crushed into fine particles for use in construction and beach nourishment. Additionally, fly ash, which consists of tiny particles produced from fuel combustion, can serve as a primary binding agent in concrete, reducing the reliance on sands.

When sands extraction is necessary, the United Nations recommends that it be carried out in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, and that any damaged ecosystems be restored using nature-based solutions.

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