/What Connects Grenfell Tower, Dams on the Mekong, and a Shortage of Glass Vials for Covid Vaccines? Sand!

What Connects Grenfell Tower, Dams on the Mekong, and a Shortage of Glass Vials for Covid Vaccines? Sand!

By Lambert Strether of Corrente
Readers, I have purchased Obama’s latest autobiography, along with the complimentary handtruck needed to take it home, and now I’m going to have to pull on my yellow waders and read it, as much as I can stand. So that post is coming, but that post is not this post, so despite my proffered tempation, please don’t hijack the comments section to talk about [genuflects] Obama. You can do that in Links or Water Cooler. The topic of this post is sand.

And what a topic it is! In all these posts about the biosphere, I begin — all too obviously — by knowing nothing, and try to allow what I discover to shape the post. But in my reading I have never encountered a topic that serendipitously connects such wildly disparate topics as Grenfell, the Mekong, and of course Covid vials (here, here), all of which have been covered at Naked Capitalism. Sand did this, whether from necessity or chance I do not know.

So what is sand? From Geology.com:

The word “sand” is actually used for a “particle size” rather than for a “material.” Sand is a loose, granular material with particles that range in size between 1/16 millimeter and 2 millimeters in diameter. It can be composed of mineral material such as quartz, orthoclase, or gypsum; organic material such as mollusk shells, coral fragments, or radiolarian tests; or rock fragments such as basalt, pumice, or chert. Where sand accumulates in large quantities, it can be lithified into a sedimentary rock known as sandstone.

We classify sand by the size of its grains, as for example in the Unified Soil Classification and Symbol table:

(I’m including the whole table because I think it is neat. It also mentions peat, superhero of the biosphere, just covered at NC here.) It’s also possible to use more fine-grained categories, as “very fine sand (​1⁄16 – ​1⁄8 mm diameter), fine sand (​1⁄8 mm – ​1⁄4 mm), medium sand (​1⁄4 mm – ​1⁄2 mm), coarse sand (​1⁄2 mm – 1 mm), and very coarse sand (1 mm – 2 mm).

How do we classify sand? Not by the materials from which it is made, which is perhaps good, because history is not easy to classify. From Nature, “What is Sand Made of? History“:

Sand is possibly something you take for granted; it gets in your hair and your clothes and all over your food at the beach. But sand is also fascinating. Sandy beaches are dynamic: sand accumulates slowly over time, travels down the coast with longshore drift, is removed from the beach by large waves during storms, and can be redeposited back on the beach from offshore banks during calm periods. Sand is typically made mostly of varying amounts of material weathered from inland rocks (or seacliff material) and transported to the beach on the wind or in rivers, and/or shells and other hard parts precipitated out of the ocean water by marine organisms. Sand therefore records processes at a variety of timescales. Looking closely at sand under a microscope, we can determine the mineral or organismal composition of the sand and determine where it originated, and what kind of rocks or organisms created the sand.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child and also loved sand. There were two kinds: The fine-grained sand at the ocean or from a river bed, brought to me by my father for my sandbox, both good for building. And there was the sand at the lake, trucked in to make an artificial beach, coarse-grained and not good for anything. This childhood distinction corresponds to the commercial distinction between SIlica Sand and Regular Sand. From Shaw Resources, “What Is Silica Sand & How Is It Different From Regular Sand?

Silica sand, also known as quartz sand, white sand, or industrial sand, is made up of two main elements: silica and oxygen. Specifically, silica sand is made up of silicon dioxide (SiO2). The most common form of SiO2 is quartz – a chemically inert and relatively hard mineral…. In order to be considered a silica sand the material must contain at least 95% SiO2 and less than 0.6% iron oxide. If the sand does not meet this criteria, it will qualify as what’s often called ‘regular’ sand.

Regular sand, also known as feldspathic sand, brown sand, or construction sand, will always contain some silica, but only in amounts less than 95%. For example, typical brown sand used for concrete applications can contain up to 80% SiO2, along with varying amounts of iron, carbonate, potassium, and other trace elements/minerals. These ‘impurities’ make regular sand more chemically reactive and often darker in colour when compared to silica sand. The color for non-silica sands (regular sands) can be various shades white, pink, green, and black as well – depending on the geological makeup and geographic location of the sand deposit.

As an aggregate of identical small grains, “Sand Found to Flow Like Water“:

When poured, sand behaves much like water to form water-like droplets, scientists have discovered.

Hence, desert “sand falls”:

Now that we know something about sand as a substance, let’s turn to why we might be running out of it (or least the silica sand that we use to make new cladding for Grenfell tower, could mine from the Mekong, or could heat and shape into glass vials to distribute Covid vaccines. I’m sorry to turn into a supply chain romantic, but that seems to be where we are.) First, we’ll look at demand; then, we will look at supply; and then we will look at the the effects in particular industries.

Looking first at demand, from the BBC, “Why the world is running out of sand“:

How can we possibly be running low on a substance found in virtually every country on earth and that seems essentially limitless?

Sand, however, is the most-consumed natural resource on the planet besides water. People use some 50 billion tonnes of “aggregate” – the industry term for sand and gravel, which tend to be found together – every year. That’s more than enough to blanket the entire United Kingdom.

The problem lies in the type of sand we are using. Desert sand is largely useless to us. The overwhelming bulk of the sand we harvest goes to make concrete, and for that purpose, desert sand grains are the wrong shape. Eroded by wind rather than water, they are too smooth and rounded to lock together to form stable concrete.

The sand we need is the more angular stuff [silica sand] found in the beds, banks, and floodplains of rivers, as well as in lakes and on the seashore. The demand for that material is so intense that around the world, riverbeds and beaches are being stripped bare, and farmlands and forests torn up to get at the precious grains. And in a growing number of countries, criminal gangs have moved in to the trade, spawning an often lethal black market in sand.

“The issue of sand comes as a surprise to many, but it shouldn’t,” says Pascal Peduzzi, a researcher with the United Nations Environment Programme. “We cannot extract 50 billion tonnes per year of any material without leading to massive impacts on the planet and thus on people’s lives.”

The Financial Times provides a chart on future global demand:

As you can see, Peduzzi’s “massive impacts” can only be expected to increase, both for beaches and for rivers.

For impacts on beaches, R. Young and A. Griffith, “Documenting the global impacts of beach sand mining,” European Geosciences Union:

Currently, we have documented sand mining in 35 countries on 6 continents representing the removal of millions of cubic meters of sand. Problems extend from Asia where critical infrastructure has been disrupted by sand mining to the Caribbean where policy reform has swiftly followed a highly publicized theft of sand. The Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines recently observed extensive sand mining in Morocco at the regional scale. Tens of kilometers of beach have been stripped of sand and the mining continues southward reducing hope of a thriving tourism-based economy. Problems caused by beach sand mining include: destruction of natural beaches and the ecosystems they protect (e.g. dunes, wetlands), habitat loss for globally important species (e.g. turtles, shorebirds), destruction of nearshore marine ecosystems, increased shoreline erosion rates, reduced protection from storms, tsunamis, and wave events, and economic losses through tourist abandonment and loss of coastal aesthetics. The threats posed by sand mining are made even more critical given the prospect of a significant rise in global sea level over the coming decades.

Coastal Care has a case study, “Mining Of Coastal Sand: A Critical Environmental and Economic Problem For Morocco“:

Mining of coastal sand bodies has gone on for as long as humans have lived near the shore. Initially it occurred on a bucketful scale and at a local level. Now it occurs on the scale of long lines of large dump trucks containing more than 10 cubic meters of sand each. As humans have devised more efficient ways to remove large volumes of sand and as shorefront development has simultaneously increased, coastal sand mining has become a major global problem. We believe that at the present time, the most extensive mining of onshore coastal sand in the world occurs in Morocco…

Here is what happened to one beach:

The rocky layers that once were buried in sand replace dunes. The dune ecosystem is completely gone. Back-dune vegetation is dying because it is no longer protected from salt spray and wind by dunes. Wetlands are at risk because of sand and salt intrusion. The coastal road to Tangier will occasionally be flooded and perhaps even eroded in places in future storms due to the lack of protective dunes. The beach will not experience normal storm recovery because of the lack of dune sand and erosion (shoreline retreat) rates can be expected to increase significantly in future years. Present and future buildings constructed to get a sea view will be endangered in future storms.

For impacts on rivers (skipping over the Yangtze) we can look at the Mekong. From the BBC, “How the scramble for sand is destroying the Mekong“:

The entire ecosystem of this South East Asian river is under threat, all because of the world’s insatiable demand for sand.

“Extraction is happening at absolutely astronomical rates, we’re having an industrial-scale transformation of the shape of the planet,” says river scientist Prof Stephen Darby at Southampton University.

His studies on the lower Mekong show its bed has been lowered by several metres in just a few years, over many hundreds of kilometres, all in the quest for sand.

Turning from demand to supply, these impacts have led many countries[1] to limit export of sand. From the Financial Times, “Boom in global sand trade fuels fears over conservation“:

The construction industry’s use of sand, gravel and crushed rock outstrips total global consumption of all fossil fuels and metals combined, when measured by weight, according to the OECD. It forecasts that in the next four decades construction demand for sand and gravel will almost double to cater for the world’s growing population and rising living standards.

As demand mounts for sand, a growing number of countries, mostly in south-east Asia, are seeking to protect their resources by banning or significantly restricting exports.

Indonesia banned marine sand exports in 2003 and four years later extended this ban to include sand extracted from land and rivers, too. 

Vietnamese miners were instructed to stop exporting sea sand in 2010. 

Cambodia brought in a temporary ban in 2016 and then fully banned exports in 2017. 

Malaysia was the first to introduce a ban, as early as 1997, but it was lifted in 2015. Then, after almost 55m tonnes of sand made its way to Singapore in 2018, the Malaysian government reintroduced the ban earlier this year. 

The supply of sand is also limited in Europe, although the dynamic there seems not to be regulation but land use. From Deustche Welle, “Not enough sand for construction industry despite abundance?“:

Some 99% of all sand and gravel deposits in [Germany] are not where the building material can be easily accessed, because the land above it is used differently. Elsner explains you cannot excavate anything in the country’s large nature reserves and wetland protection areas. Nor can you use the areas that have already been developed.

In addition, low interest rates often stand in the way of exploiting a potential sand or gravel pit. Many landowners think it’s not a good idea to sell their plots to sandpit operators. Instead, they hope for land prices to rise further and get more money out of it.

Given extremely powerful demand, and increasingly limited supply, we can see that not every customer is going to able to get the product they want from the supply chain in the quantity or quality they might like.[2] From Stockhead, “The silica sand demand storm is coming and Australia is preparing to face it head on“:

Even medical vials used to store vaccines are in short supply and while the actual tonnage required for their production is relatively minute, they still require silica sand of extremely high purity.

And while demand for such high-purity silica sand is rising, supply is increasingly becoming an issue to the point that illegal mining is a problem in some countries, while China has included it on its list of strategic minerals.

There is also growing demand for silica sand to produce engineered stone cladding.

[VRX Silica managing director Bruce Maluish] noted that in the wake of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London, there has been a strong push to replace the flammable external cladding that was widely blamed for the rapid spread of the fire with other materials including engineered stone.

It would not have occured to me that vaccinating as many people as possible against Covid could possibly contradicct protecting people in towers with flammable cladding like Grenfell from being burned to death, but here we are[3]. On sand and medical vials, from The Institute of Supply Management, “When Bottles (as in Medical Vials) Become the Bottleneck”:

With billions of dollars being spent for a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine, it could seem that all will be well once a viable one is found. However, even then, many people might still not be able to access it — a shortage of glass vials is predicted to create a bottleneck for the vaccine’s delivery.

Medical vials are made of Type I borosilicate glass. Another type of borosilicate glass — soda-lime glass (Type III), which is used for windows, house decor and glass bottles — cannot be used for vaccine vials due to its chemical reactivity and its lack of resistance to thermal shock during the vial manufacturing process. Type I glass has better pH stability, it releases less alkali and chemicals, and it is more resistant to drastic temperature changes than Type III glass, making it the gold standard in vials making, according to an article in The Medicine Maker.

In the short term, it seems that the current shortage is due to slow growth of the vials manufacturing industry combined with an unexpected surge in demand. The glass-vial industry is heavily capital-intensive due to the cost to acquire the equipment. Another consideration: The equipment consumes a lot of energy — the furnace used to melt the sand, for example, runs at close to 2,000 degrees when no vials are being made. Additionally, special requirements like precision details, manufacturing process control, level and intensity of quality checks lead to additional cost. Combined, these factors create a high barrier of entry, and it could be risky to invest in the industry without a promising perspective of sales.

In the long term, experts say the shortage will be driven by the lack of a core ingredient: sand. Though there may be plenty of sand on the planet, not all of it is usable for glass vials. The type suitable for making Type I borosilicate glass is silica sand. Containing large amounts of silicon dioxide (SiO2), the resulting glass is chemically inert. As the concentration of SiO2 increases, so does the clarity and strength of the resulting glass. Silica sand is also used in construction (concrete, shingles and mortar) and in the technology industry (computer chips).

Sands such as silica sand are highly sought due to their jagged shape that can grip better, unlike desert and beach sands that are eroded into smoother grains by the wind. Most silica sand is found in river beds and lakes.

From Dezeen magazine, “Sand becomes ‘increasingly scarce and expensive’, threatening glassmaking and construction“:

[British geologist Michael Welland] described the fine sands commonly used to make glass as “a good example of an exhaustible specialty sand whose availability is unsustainable,” but said it is “impossible to quantify” how much remains in the world.

“Perhaps [there is] 20 years [supply] of the known high-purity glass sand deposits, but more will be found with increasing difficulty and expense,” he said.

Of course, Southeast Asia, where Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia could supply sand if they would, has a rich tradition of local operators who can smooth away tiresome bureaucratic obstacles. So it may be that the supply is greater than we think. Nevertheless, Dezeen concludes:

A symposium taking place at Dutch Design Week later this month will discuss the rapid depletion of the world’s sand reserves, which could leave supplies of the high-quality sand used in the glass industry exhausted within 20 years.

The “sand crisis” threatens to destabilise the global glassmaking and concrete industries, with the latter using an estimated 25 billion tons of sand and gravel every year.


It would seem that, as for so many biosphere problems, some sort of global mobilization is needed. From Global News, “How the world might run out of sand“:

Mobilizing a sand agenda

An important starting point for mobilizing a sand agenda is the 2019 UNEP sand governance report, focusing on accountability and transparency in sand value chains. Global sand governance is critical.

Changing how we build our cities is another part of how we face the sand and climate crises. We need to ask ourselves why we have been so seduced by concrete. If we do not change our habits, and encourage the development of “green concrete” and alternative building materials or innovations such as using bacterial species in bio-concrete, the world built from sand may be pulled down by its own weight.

To further mobilize a sand agenda, researchers and campaigners could focus on narratives that draw on the climate crisis or other ecological dimensions, such as directing attention to how sand dredging is linked to landslides and poorer water quality, or how sand infill leads to the loss of wetland habitat.

Others could unpack labour regimes, advocate for better working conditions, or explore the involvement of political groups in financing sand extraction. We need to delve deeper into how the sand mining sector relies on cheap labour, fast-moving money, some of it illicit, and criminal activities.

This sand agenda, through the consideration of working conditions and ecological dimensions, enables us to imagine a global future that is greener.

“Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!


[1] But not the United States; we are the world’s top exporter of sand.

[2] Sadly, I will not be able to look at fracking sand, which is just as important a chokepoint for keeping oil in the ground as pipelines.

[3] As it turns out, medical vials and stone cladding compete with frack sand as well. From Metal Bulletin, “Growing US shortage of sand for foundry and glass industries“:

A leading industrial sand supplier in Wisconsin told IM: “Industrial sand is selling extremely well across the US due to the ongoing boom in oil and natural gas drilling. As a result there is now a shortage of silica sand for other industries like foundry and glass which are steadily recovering”.

That quote is from 2011, and the fracking industry has gone bust again, so I felt it was simpler to leave fracking out.

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