Categorized by size of grains as somewhere between silt and gravel, sand is essential for keeping our world infrastructure going. The article notes the right kind of sand for the right purposes is becoming increasingly scarce. Some countries now see “Sand Mafias” organized to supply markets hungry for this surprisingly precious resource.

A report said that sand and gravel mining “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates.” The final event of last year’s beach-volleyball world tour was held in Toronto, in September, in a parking lot at the edge of Lake Ontario. There’s a broad public beach nearby, but few actual beaches meet  the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball’s strict standards for sand …

Ordinary beach sand tends to be too firm for volleyball: when players dive into it, they break fingers, tear hamstrings, and suffer other impact injuries. Knapton helped devise the sport’s sand specifications, after Canadian players complained about the courts at the 1996 Olympic Games, in Atlanta. “It was trial and error at first,” he said. “But we came up with an improved recipe, and we now have a material that’s uniform from country to country to country, on five continents.” 

But sand isn’t just sand, it turns out. In the industrial world, it’s “aggregate,” a category that includes gravel, crushed stone, and various recycled materials. Natural aggregate is the world’s second most heavily exploited natural resource, after water, and for many uses the right kind is scarce or inaccessible. In 2014, the United Nations Environment Programme published a report titled “Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks,” which concluded that the mining of sand and gravel “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates” and that “the amount being mined is increasing exponentially, mainly as a result of rapid economic growth in Asia.”

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