Why the illegal sand trade is out of control right now

There’s a global sand shortage and it’s stirring up a whole lot of chaos.

In the dark world of conflict minerals, there’s a deadly black market that pulls in anywhere between $200B and $350B a year. It’s not blood diamonds. It’s not cobalt.

A masked man wearing all black holds a baseball bat surrounded by two open-mouthed crocodiles.

It’s sand.

Believe it or not, it’s the planet’s second-most-used natural resource, behind only water. Sand is a key ingredient in what civilization is literally made of — concrete, glass, and asphalt.

And we’re running out.

But aren’t the deserts, like, full of sand?

Turns out desert sand is too smooth to make stable concrete, and sea sand is too salty.

Using either can lead to weak structures, like those that exacerbated Turkey’s 2023 earthquake disaster.

That means the ~50B tons of construction-grade sand used each year comes from lakes, rivers, and shorelines around the world.

And extracting that much of a limited resource leads to exactly what you’re thinking…

… crocodile uprisings and sand gangs

Without proper regulation, sand mining can lead to coastal erosion, flooding, and aquifer collapse.

In Sri Lanka, overharvesting has even caused one river to flow backward, allowing salt-water crocodiles to swim upriver into populated cities.

But switching to sustainable harvesting practices often leads to higher prices — and high prices lead to black markets.

That’s allowed organized crime outfits to set up illegal mining operations in places like Morocco, Mozambique, and even the US.

The most recent figures from American think tank Global Financial Integrity shows that illegal sand trade was the third-biggest global crime after drugs and counterfeiting.

And it could become more profitable, with some experts projecting the world will run out of construction-grade sand as early as 2050.

But it’s not hopeless

In 2022, the UN released a 10-point plan for preventing a sand crisis. It looks to alternatives like ash from incinerated waste, which could help curb illegal trade.

It also recommends leaning into recycling construction materials and e-waste. That’s already a reality in Germany, which successfully recycles a kick-ash 87% of household and industrial waste and incinerates the rest.

If we could humbly submit another idea: an awareness-raising action flick where Liam Neeson fights crocs and sand smugglers.

Get the 5-minute news brief keeping 2.5M+ innovators in the loop. Always free. 100% fresh. No bullsh*t.