An ongoing global sand shortage is delaying real estate developments, straining project budgets, and sending some construction companies scrambling to find alternative solutions. The sand shortage has been a growing problem over the last decade, driven by the continued growth of the world’s population and more people moving to urban areas. A recent construction outlook report from JLL found that the US construction industry is seeing “rapid price growth” in the price of sand, and it is not expected to come down any time soon. According to Stanford University, the price of sand has more than doubled over the last few decades, jumping from $4 a ton 31 years ago to the current price of $10 a ton.

Concrete, one of the most widely-used materials in the construction world, is created mostly from sand. It is used to construct buildings, bridges, roads and is also used in cosmetics and computer microchips. In fact, sand is the most consumed commodity in the world, after water. However, keeping up with demand has been a challenge. The kind of sand used in construction is mined from riverbeds, lakes and beaches, and the soaring demand for the material is leading to an environmental crisis in some places where mining is common. And because sand is an unregulated business, the unrelenting demand for the key material has led to violence, death and “sand mafias.”

There are alternatives to using sand in the construction process. One is mass timber, a material that has been growing in popularity in recent years. Another is crushed rock, which is already being used in the US, Europe, and China where it is the main source of aggregates. A third option is recycling waste from construction and demolition sites like concrete or masonry. A report from the United Nations Environment Programme released earlier this year on the sand shortage recommended better regulations and standards surrounding sand extraction in order to protect riverbeds and coastlines. “If we can get a grip on how to manage the most extracted solid material in the world, we can avert a crisis and move toward a circular economy,” said UNEP’s Pascal Peduzzi. While prices may not go down anytime soon for the construction world, it’s an encouraging sign that influential organizations are making the sand shortage a priority.

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