The sands of time are running out ... for sand

Sand has always been an irritant, specially when it gets inside engines or bodily crevices. Right now in Byron Bay it’s irritating because it’s one of several factors delaying the rebuild of Byron’s Palace Cinemas complex  -- nearly two years late with no reopening in sight. What’s sand got to do with it? Because from 1935 through to the 1980s, mining companies scooped up sand from our local beaches and inland dunes to mix with cement (calcium silicate or ‘lime’) to make concrete – and bricks, and asphalt, and mortar.

What wasn’t widely known until the 1980s was that while sand is mostly silica, it is laced with traces of rare minerals including titanium, rutile, zircon and monazite – and those last two contain radioactive uranium and thorium. When the Byron beach sands were sold to concrete-makers, the rare minerals were filtered out and left behind. Well, they were actually left in fills, anywhere there was a hole to fill. One of the hundreds of these radioactive dumps is the site where the Palace Cinema was supposed to be rebuilt and the Woolworths parking area alongside it. In the 1980s, Byron area activists including Anudhi Wentworth raised alarms and campaigned for remediation, particularly under the (now closed) Byron hospital and the Byron primary school.

Apart from radioactive car parks, there’s a much bigger issue about sand, which is that from the early 20th century to this day we humans have demanded increasingly massive amounts of it, to make concrete – and glass, which is also mostly composed of silica, from sand.

Most of our modern era environment is made of concrete and glass, in the form of shopping centres, condos, office blocks, parking garages, airport terminals, dams, and houses. Plus asphalt, in highways, suburban streets, tarmacs, tennis and basketball courts, and footpaths.

In the May issue of the New Yorker enviro-writer David Owen reported that: “A typical American house requires more than a hundred tons of sand, gravel, and crushed stone for the foundation, basement, garage, and driveway, and more than 200 tons if you include its share of the street that runs in front of it.”

The problem is global. Bill Gates recently blogged that China used more concrete in the past three years than the US did in the entire twentieth century, and Shanghai now has more skyscrapers than New York City does. Gates points out that all this concrete will have to be replaced in the coming decades, helpfully predicting that mini-sensors in the concrete mix will alert us when it starts disintegrating.

All of this was lamented back in 1966, in the haunting pop song ‘Tar and Cement’ that made number one on the Australian charts. Where are the meadows? it asked. Tar and cement the chorus answered. Where are the lilacs? And where is the tall grass? The laughter of children? 
Nothing but acres (tar and cement)
(Quiz: name the singer, answer at end of story)

And that song didn’t even mention glass, nor other human activities that pile on to the demand for sand. People with large investments in beachfront properties believe that local, state and national governments should replace “their” sand when it erodes -- and this happens the world over not just at Belongil Beach.

Then there’s fracking. When frackers drill wells (which can be several kilometres deep), they blast millions of kilograms of sand into the rock to help force the fossil fuel to the surface.  And they’re drilling hundreds of thousands of wells.

We are now using more sand than any other natural resource besides water, and we’re running out of usable sand. As the New Yorker’s report explained, “usable” is important. When the princes of Dubai built the world’s tallest building, on the Arabian desert, they had to import the sand for the concrete because their own sand is too fine – so fine that golf balls sink in it – so they imported sand from Australia!

 A 2014 United Nations report concluded that global sand grabbing “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates” adding -- guess what? -- “the current level of political concern clearly does not match the urgency of the situ­ation.”

As my longtime publishing partner Jim Hightower says in the latest issue of his Lowdown newsletter, “the general attitude of the shadowy sand extraction industry is that if brute force isn’t working, you’re probably not using enough of it.”

Much of the global sand grab happens in remote places, the southwestern coast of Cambodia for example, where dredging corporations ripped up entire human and natural environments to send barges filled with sand to Singapore, not just to build the skyscrapers that house 7000 plus multinational corporate headquarters, but also to expand the island’s real estate by dumping sand into the sea around it.

There is one uplifting aspect this tale of sand: ‘Tar and Cement’ (lyrics by Pockriss and Vance) was Verdelle Smith’s only hit, reaching #38 in the USA. Verdelle came from a morally righteous black family in Brooklyn, and she quit the music business after releasing one album and became a pastor caring for the disadvantaged. She learned only recently that her song went to #1 in Australia all those years ago. She’s thrilled.

cartoon: Brian Duffy / Hightower Lowdown

cartoon: Brian Duffy / Hightower Lowdown

Phillip FrazerComment