As incredible as it sounds, the world is running out of sand. Or at least the kind of sand that industries need.
According to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), sand and gravel, known as aggregates, are used in volumes greater than any other raw material on earth except water. And their use greatly exceeds natural renewal rates, the program says.
Kay-Christian Emeis, director of the Institute of Coastal Research at the Helmholtz Center for Materials and Coastal Research (HZG) near Hamburg, Germany, says that worldwide demand for sand is enormous, an estimated 14 billion tons annually, more than half of which is used in Asia.
UNEP explained that sand is indispensable in the industry of many things, such as glass, paper, toothpaste, detergents, cosmetics, electronics and aeronautics, and it is used predominantly in construction and land restorations. Concrete is made with cement, water, sand and gravel.
Even desert countries, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, import sand (marine sand) from Australia, for example to build their skyscrapers.
Harald Elsner, a geologist at Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) notes that the mineral composition and grain-size distribution of desert sand are not suited to construction.
Most desert sand cannot be used for concrete or land reclamation, as wind erosion shapes round grains that do not blend well, UNEP added.
When Dubai created a group of 300 artificial islands representing a map of the world, it used 450 million tons of Australian sand. As the HZG explains, desert sand would be blown away much too quickly.
The worldwide construction boom, particularly in China, has not left Germany a bystander. According to government statistics, more than 270,000 dwellings in Germany were either newly built or reconstructed in 2016, which is a high record.
This year, the German Construction Industry Federation expects the number to top 300,000.