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It’s not something most people think is in short supply, but sand is such a hot commodity that an international black market has formed for the stuff you can’t get out of your shoe after that July 4th trip to the beach.
The world mines a whole lot of sand and gravel to make concrete, glass and other materials. It’s also used to make new beaches and restore popular ones, but we are now using more sand each year than is naturally created by erosion. China and India, booming countries laying down lots of roads and new housing, are leading the way. China’s construction workers mixed and poured more concrete between 2011 and 2014 than the United States did in the entire 20th century.
Sand prices are soaring and international trade is booming, putting fragile environments at risk and creating a burgeoning black market.
“Sand mafias” are raiding beaches in developing nations, paying off local officials and murdering journalists and other whistleblowers along the way, as they abscond with loads of sand blasted out of riverbeds and sucked away from uninhabited islands off the coast of Africa and Asia.
“We are addicted to sand but don’t know it because we don’t buy it as individuals,” says Aurora Torres, a Spanish ecologist studying the effects of global sand extraction at Germany’s Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research.
Sand dredging can lower the water table, creating stagnant pools and polluting drinking water. It destroys riverbeds; degrades corals, seaweed and seagrass; and threatens species that depend on those delicate ecosystems.
“This is a hidden ecological disaster in the making,” Torres told The Guardian. “We will be hearing a lot more about sand in the coming years.”