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How M-Sand Can Combat the Illegal Sand Trade

Posted on December 8, 2021

SAN DIEGO, California — The world is currently experiencing a shortage of one of its most valuable geological resources – sand. After water, sand is the most internationally consumed resource because of its essentiality to glass manufacturing, urban construction and other material production. While the world has massive deserts full of sand, it is unusable due to the fact that wind-eroded sand is smoother and therefore much harder to bind together for concrete. As a result, mining or dredging for coarser sand from the bottom of lakes and rivers is now an expansive practice. Unfortunately, its environmental effects are very severe.

The Illegal Sand Trade

According to BBVA OpenMind, dredging rivers increases the risk of severe flooding, soil erosion and pollution in drinking water sources. It also ruins infrastructure. Overall, sand mining interferes with complex ecosystems. The sand mining industry is largely unregulated. Worldwide, there are minimal laws surrounding sand extraction. As a result, this has fueled the illegal sand trade.

It is estimated that 70% of people who sand mine do not have permits to do so. These people are also known as “sand mafias.” They command this lucrative business and mine sand for anyone from construction companies to countries looking to expand their landmass. Sand mafias are organized crime groups that not only destroy many delicate environmental systems but present harmful social effects.

Destructive Sand Mafias

Sand mafias are deadly because, like many crime gangs, they are willing to kill for their resources, according to Wired. In India, sand mining groups have killed or threatened reporters, law enforcement officers, government officials or anybody who attempts to interfere with their business.

One case study about the illegal sand trade in India showed that out of all groups affected by sand mafias, those living in lower-income areas are the most at risk. Sand mafias often recruit people from poor areas because they are local to the sand source and already lack sustainable opportunities.

They also sometimes use children, taking advantage of their small size and lack of regulation to extract resources from hard-to-reach areas. In some cases, miners can earn as much as $7 a day. This makes the work much more appealing since it is double the wages of a field hand.

However, as the locals continue to mine sand from their community, they become also dependent on a finite resource. This is unsustainable and results in short-lived profit. Additionally, the destruction makes their localities less viable for other businesses because they destroy their natural resources.

Sand mining is not only destructive to the ecological system around them but also to economic opportunities. In these communities, sand mining has gripped the population since the 1990s. Yet, law enforcement has yet to address it or create policies because these communities are impoverished and sand mafias continue to threaten authorities.

Examining Manufactured Sand

The biggest obstacles to the issues of sand mining have to do with the fact that sand is a finite source. The rarity of sand causes small wars over its source and produces a domino effect of violence and poverty. Additionally, since governments overlook it, the cycle of poverty continues. Because government policy and law enforcement are slow to address this situation, the most relevant and fastest way to combat this issue is to introduce market alternatives. This is where manufactured sand or M-sand comes in.

Manufactured sand is made from larger pieces of bedrock, which are pulverized into smaller pieces by a crusher. The crushers can control the grain shapes and produce the coarse texture needed for construction. It also makes concrete production more efficient since manufactured sand is “less needed in concrete compared with natural sand, by a difference of 5 to 20%.”

M-Sand also solves the issue of material waste. Quarries usually have large amounts of leftover waste from mining that stays in storage and requires more effort to move. However, companies can use the waste for manufactured sand and can improve resource maximization.

Is Manufactured Sand The Solution?

Manufactured sand is a long-term solution that can help reduce the social and environmental effects of the illegal sand trade. Overall, it outperforms natural sand. In fact, it costs less to produce manufactured sand than to dig up natural sand. It also has better water retention and strength, which makes it more workable for construction.

Because m-sand sand outperforms natural dredged sand, construction companies and other customers could be more inclined to purchase it. Sand can also be made at construction sites, which will reduce the need for transportation and outside sourcing, according to Metso Outotec.

These factors could naturally disempower sand mafias and the illegal sand trade. They cannot beat the immediacy that manufactured sand has. It could reduce the need for dredging, and by proxy, protect vulnerable populations. Furthermore, it could keep impoverished people from the dangers of resorting to sand mining and discourage further violence by mafias since there would be a limited illegal sand trade to fight over.

Botswana Geoscience Institute reported that manufactured sand in Botswana had positive impacts on the community at large. Its project examining the usage of manufactured sand helped empower local economies in Botswana by creating jobs and diversifying the local economic system. There is still more to be explored in this area; however, it is obvious that the use of manufactured sand may help encourage new sectors of work in construction.

In the long run, the use of manufactured sand could present a tactful strategy to combat the social, economic and environmental effects of sand dredging. Instead of physically forcing natural sand mining to stop, it out-competes it over a period of time. Manufactured sand is a growing practice and has the potential to reverse deep-rooted dependencies on the illegal sand trade.


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