Sand Mining: Growing Pains of Cross-Border Trade

Two deadly storms, Typhoon Hato in southern China and Hurricane Harvey in Texas, struck the world’s largest economies in the span of one week, leaving billions of dollars of damage and displacing thousands. Such storms destroy beaches, the natural buffers for coastal communities against surging seas. Fast repairs for beaches and infrastructure increase demand for sand, a key ingredient for concrete, roads and energy production. Over two decades sand went from a local product, with transport economically unfeasible beyond 30 miles, to a commodity with global trade, explains Susan Froetschel, managing editor of YaleGlobal Online. Agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers and China’s State Oceanic Administration oversee activities including dredging to remove hazards and stockpiling sand for infrastructure. Fast-growing economies and a growing middle class in Asia, particularly China, fuel demand for sand even as environmental concerns and permitting requirements limit supplies. Nations and communities that want to restore beaches, or expand territory as is the case in Singapore and China, often eye low-cost sand in nearby nations with ample supplies and fewer regulations. Government agencies caution that sand-mining statistics can be unreliable, and uneven record-keeping in many countries may hide real capacity. – YaleGlobal

Sand Mining: Growing Pains of Cross-Border Trade

Sand is indispensable for construction, roads and oil recovery – even as nations try to protect coasts and supplies
Susan Froetschel
Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Workers construct a bridge across a river in Vermont, and sand is dredged and transferred by suction pipes to build and replenish islands in Dubai

SAUGATUCK, MICHIGAN: When powerful storms strike, like Typhoon Hato in southern China or Hurricane Harvey in Texas, the surging water scatters tons of sand. Sand is essential for the rebuilding soon to follow, and such storms add to growing global demand for sand with poor consequences for the economy and environment.

Sand is a main ingredient for concrete, roads and other construction materials and second only to water as the most used natural resource. Building booms, especially in emerging nations, increase world sand production with prices doubling since the end of the 20th century. In the 1990s, geologists described sand mining as a local business, with product transport more than 30 miles economically unfeasible. Supplies that once seemed endless are in demand with more cross-border trade.

The global market in construction aggregates was valued at more than $350 billion in 2016 with demand leading for sand, although recordkeeping on mining operations is relatively new for many nations. Sand dredging along waterways eliminates natural buffers, contributing to nearby erosion. The International Monetary Fund warns of environmental harm with no international conventions to regulate trade along with minimal enforcement of national regulations.

Sand varies in size and color with chemical composition linked to the geological origin of rocks and minerals weathered over centuries. Industries have preferences. The construction industry relies on river sand. Glass, ceramics, electronics and oil industries seek inland silica sand with high levels of quartz wth names like Northern White or Sierra Gold. Foundries use dune sand for casting automobiles and wind turbines. Corrosive marine sand must be rinsed free of salt before use in concrete, but works well for projects described as beach nourishment, replenishment or repair along the US coast and land reclamation in the South China Sea. China alternately dredges the South China Sea for sand while adding deposits to contested reefs to build new islands.

Building blocks: The United States relies on glacial deposits and river channels and flood plains for construction aggregates, with offshore deposits limited to beach erosion control; other countries routinely mine offshore deposits for onshore construction (Data: US Mineral Commodities Summary 2017)

Water naturally alters coasts over time, and humans try to limit the damage for communities.

Satellite data and other tools document shifting coastlines due to rising seas and climate change, and mining nearby sand to expand distant beaches has become a sensitive issue. In Japan sand mining has been banned for river channels since the 1960s but continues in seabed locations. The California Coastal Commission denied permits for Mexico-based Cemex, effectively ending sand mining for Monterey County beaches by 2021.

Beach restoration is not a one-time fix. Added sand erodes faster than natural sand, and few beach projects last more than five years without ongoing maintenance and additions, explains geologist Don Barber. Billions of cubic yards of material are removed from sites around the globe annually to keep shipping lanes open. In the United States, the Army Corps of Engineers oversees dredging projects to widen channels for modern ships, stockpile offshore supplies and protect shorelines.

Panama City is one of many Florida communities that have added millions of cubic yards of sand to beaches over the last two decades. The sand comes from nearby offshore “borrow areas,” and pipelines transport a mixture of sand, silt and water. The cost of 2017 repairs, estimated at $17 million, is largely paid for by tourists with a “bed tax” on rentals. Some communities like Miami have used up their allotted offshore supplies. Yet they reject sand dredged from inland Florida as too dark and costly. Instead, they want white sand from the Bahamas and the Caribbean, but that requires overturning a US law prohibiting imported sand in beach restoration projects that receive federal funding.

Activists raise alarm about eroded shorelines and wildlife protection, and communities increasingly impose limits on sand mining and exports, such as opposing public funding to restore beaches that limit public access. The appearance of four sand mining barges off a beach in Suriname despite a ban demonstrates need for community vigilance.

Nowhere is the competition for sand perhaps more intense than in fast-growing Asia. Governments in Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia have limited exports of river sand, concerned by Singapore’s increasing its land mass by 20 percent since 2000.  People in six countries that rely on the Mekong River worry about China’s plans to dynamite sections, among the many One Belt, One Road projects that require sand. A judge in the Philippines in August urged the government to guard a Sandy Cay sandbar near Subi Reef, where China is reported to be dredging sand. Investigators in Cambodia discovered that up to $750 million worth of sand went missing after the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database showed about 3 million tons leaving the country between 2007 and 2015 and more than 70 million tons of Cambodian sand entering Singapore during the same period.  Cambodia imposed a permanent ban on exports in July.

Increasing restrictions contribute to illegal sand mines in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana and the Philippines, reports Marius Dan Gavriletea for Sustainability.

Industries search for alternatives. The fracking industry is reducing use of sand with new chemicals and well designs. Alternatives to river sand include crushed and screened waste glass, crushed rock and granite dust, quarry dust, recycled copper slag and sea sand.  Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and others manufacture sand with large crushing and sorting equipment.

Global sandbox: Multinationals and small informal operators supply sand for construction projects around the globe (UN Comtrade)

Engineers dismiss desert sand as too fine for construction or beach improvements, forcing sand-rich nations like the United Arab Emirates to rely on Australian and British multinationals for supplies. Still, researchers experiment with additives like marble dust and treatments to make desert sand suitable for erosion control.  Recycling is another option. Recycling rates of glass containers is 73 percent in the European Union and 34 percent in the United States, with every ton of recycled product eliminating the need for a ton of natural product. Concrete can also be recycled for select uses, suggests the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association.

Singapore is taking lessons from the Netherlands in building dikes and seawalls around low-lying tracts of land along with networks of drains and pumps. Indonesia, after losing small islands due to illegal sand mining, has contracted with the Dutch firm Boskalis to construct an artificial island off Jakarta.

The best defense may be restricting building in coastal zones and protecting native plants.

The world’s largest exporter is the United States, which began keeping statistics on sand mining in 1905 and a century later was shipping industrial grade product to almost every region of the world. The value of US production of construction sand and gravel is higher than that of gold or copper production. Collecting production data in many nations is challenging because of varying specifications and the informal nature of some sand-mining businesses.  In 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, 193 nations concluded that sand and other minerals are essential for economic and social development. Sand miners must build good relations with communities, emphasizing sustainability and reducing waste, suggests the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association.

Unchecked mining, with more sand removed each year than what can be replaced by the natural processes occurring over the course of centuries, is unsustainable. The forces of globalization are altering coastlines and the sand-mining industry as much as storms and waves shape grains of sand.

Susan Froetschel is managing editor of YaleGlobal Online and author of five mystery novels that examine globalization and public policies at the local level. 

Copyright © 2017 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center


It is fascinating how something so commonplace, is actually an essential and coveted resource. We take so much for granted in the world around us until we see how it fits into the larger picture. Everything we do is a choice with consequences – there really is no free lunch when it comes to using any resource.

Ms. Froetschel: Here in the Upper Mississippi River Valley's beautifully pristine and unique bluff lands (in the Driftless Zone), where I live, a frack-sand mining boom has been happening since 2005 or so. We citizens in my particular community (Winona county MN) have fought hard vs the frack sand industry for many years to avoid their despoiling our area. So far we have kept them out, but at a price (e.g., I dissolved my business in 2011 in order to free up my time to volunteer as a community-rights grassroots activist, fighting the sand industry. Frack sand mines in this region have destroyed many people's lives; their greedy neighbors sold out to the industry for sometimes over a million dollars, so their own property is radically devalued, their quality of life is destroyed (cancer causing silica dust in the air, destroyed roads, threats to well water, 24/7 stadium lighting (like a Walmart parking lot), noise, 80,000 pound diesel trucks running constantly, etc etc. (In my small river town, we citizens shut down two frack sand operations in the city simultaneously, and 35 of us were arrested. 8 out of 10 people generally testify at hearings against the industry, but the local boards, fearful of lawsuits from the powerful industry, almost always grant the permits. For more info, see the excellent documentary on this subject, The Price of Sand, or go to FracTracker and see aerial photos taken by Ted Auch. And go to the Concerned Chippewa Citizens website for all kinds of photos, articles, interviews, etc. Cheers, Jim Gurley Winona MN

Mr. Gurley, Thank you for reading the article and commenting. Conflicts will increase with rising sand prices and demand. Companies and communities will cross state lines and national borders to seek sand subjected to fewer regulations. Natural resources are limited, and sand is not high on most people’s radar. I will check out the documentary and .websites. Again, thank you.

Sitting on a man-made beach in Sentosa, I used to wonder how all this sand came here. The author has done a magnificent job explaining what goes behind moving sands all over the world and associated environmental damages. If Singapore is 22% bigger in land size today compared to its size as a British colony, it is only thanks to all the sand that has been smuggled out of Indonesia - lost islands bearing testimony to illegal sand excavation- and other poorer countries surrounding the rich city-state. As man keeps exploiting nature and mother earth, we will increasingly see imbalance in weather and climate.