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The world is running out of sand

Sheila Puffer, a university distinguished professor of international business at Northeastern whose research focuses on global sand prices and sustainable sand substitutes in the construction industry, elaborated on the global shortage of the non-renewable resource during a webinar on sustainable development and coastal erosion hosted by the university’s Young Global Leaders.

Puffer provided insights into where sand is created: in rivers, lakes, and seashores, and where it’s going: it’s used primarily to make materials such as asphalt, concrete, and cement in construction. Sand is also used to make window panes, cell phone screens, and sunglasses.

“The amount of sand that is consumed annually is twice the amount of sand that is produced every year naturally by every river in the world,” Puffer said. “And most of that sand goes into the production of concrete.”

Offering a different perspective on the topic was Adel Zadeh, an associate teaching professor in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern’s Toronto campus whose research and teaching focus on sustainability initiatives in green building construction and how sustainability trends affect the building and construction industry. The extraction of sand from gravel pits and quarries, he said, often leads to a loss of animal wildlife, which results in a significant loss of biodiversity as plants and habitats are destroyed.

“We cannot extract this amount per year of any material without leading to massive impact on the planet and thus people’s lives,” said Zadeh, who, in addition to teaching, also works as a civil engineering project management consultant on public and private construction projects.

He advocated for swapping sand in concrete for alternative materials such as granulated blast-furnace slag and copper slag, though more needs to be learned about how these materials perform when used in large proportion, Zadeh said.

Puffer noted that sand substitutes would need to be profitable to satisfy a capitalist system. Moreover, for this solution to work, she said, there needs to be agreement among all levels of government on regulations encouraging substitute materials and discouraging the use of concrete.

“This is a challenge that researchers and developers need to address, because the cost of substitutes exceeds that of natural sand,” Puffer said.

For ideas, the construction industry can look to the management of resources in other industries, such as timber, she said, or to programs that have been successful, such as one in Canada that rewards builders for producing energy-efficient buildings.

The Sept. 16 program, titled Global Perspectives: Sea, Sand, and Sustainability, also featured Brian Helmuth, a professor of marine and environmental sciences based at the Coastal Sustainability Institute in Nahant.

Helmuth, whose research and teaching focuses on predicting the likely impacts of climate change on coastal ecosystems, discussed how erosion will affect vital wildlife habitats, as well as coastal homes, livelihoods, and industries. But coastal “armoring”— the practice of using physical structures to protect shorelines from coastal erosion—only shifts the problem down the coast to communities that are too poor to build seawalls, he said.

“This makes urban coastal systems a microcosm for exploring the ways of trying to harmonize the way that we live as a part of rather than separate from coastal ecosystems,” said Helmuth.

Acknowledging that more awareness needs to be raised about these crises, the panelists were challenged with the question: How do we get people to care?

Helmuth suggested using social media to build empathy and better understanding of the issues, while Puffer recommended using the mainstream media to ignite social change.

“We need credible authorities to convey the fact that we have a serious climate crisis on multiple fronts and that there are reliable ways of actually addressing these, such as substitute materials in the construction industry,” she said.

The environmental and social impacts of sand extraction is an issue of global significance, and one that will affect every community, whether directly or indirectly, said Zadeh.

“International organizations, national governments, private sector companies, construction companies, and local communities all play a critical role in the governance of sand resources and also going with more sustainable solutions,” he said.


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