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Sand – a very special raw material

About one third of the earth’s surface is covered by deserts. When something is almost infinitely available, it exists ‘like sand on the seashore’: it seems as if our earth is a never-ending source of one of the most important raw materials of our civilization. Sand is the proverbial foundation of our cities and industries, our roads and our houses. Without sand, in fact – nothing works.

Sand and gravel are, after air and water, by far the most used resources of our earth. They account for around 85 percent of all raw materials mined. Around 40 billion tons are used worldwide every year. That’s about twice as much as all the rivers on earth can carry.

2.9 tons of sand per person. Per year.

In Germany, too, we are doing a lot of building work: On average, 2.9 metric tons of sand are used per year for every inhabitant. Around 80 percent of this is used in our houses and traffic routes. And consumption is rising steadily: between 2011 and 2013, for example, China used more sand than the USA in the entire 20th century. With the amount of concrete we use worldwide, you could build a wall 27 meters high and 27 meters wide around the equator. Every year. As particularly important as sand is for construction projects all over the world, it is also particularly valuable – because not all sand is the same.

Desert sand: unsuitable for construction.

Even though not all deserts are made of sand, the relatively fine desert sand is available in sheer overwhelming quantities. However, it is unsuitable for building projects because wind erosion has made it far too uniform and rounded.

Even countries like the United Arab Emirates have to import their construction sand. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is surrounded by desert sand – it was built with sand imported from Australia.

Dramatic consequences of sand mining.

The extraction and import of the building sand has dramatic ecological consequences, because most of it is sucked up from the seabed – which means the immediate end for the local flora and fauna.

The consequences are also felt by people: firstly, through the impact on the food chain and the fishing industry worldwide, and secondly, the mining upsets the natural balance of wind, waves and currents. The consequences range from changes in coastlines to the disappearance of entire islands.

Sand consumption per capita in Germany (in tons / year)

Sand consumption in tons per single-family house in Germany

Sand consumption per kilometer of highway (in tons)

Using resources responsibly in everyday life

Even though the public sector is by far the largest consumer of sand in this country, private individuals can help to reduce sand consumption in their everyday activities:


  • The less we drive, the fewer roads are needed. One kilometer of highway already consumes 30,000 tons of sand.
  • There is also sand in many everyday objects: the more things you repair instead of buying new, the more you help protect resources.
  • Renovating residential buildings: Careful, energy-efficient renovation of residential buildings is usually more sustainable than building new ones. a single-family house requires about 200 tons of sand.
  • Alternative building materials: Sand alternatives such as clay and loam are already being increasingly used in construction, and recycled concrete, waste glass and ecological insulation materials are also being used more and more.
  • Green electricity avoids greenhouse gases, which in turn counteracts global warming and rising sea levels – coastal erosion can be somewhat reduced as a result.

Cell phones: Built with sand – and stowed away in the closet?

Cell phones not only contain a lot of technology, but also sand: their chips are made of silicon, which in turn is made of quartz sand.
The life of a cell phone is meanwhile a rather short pleasure: After an average of 18 months, most phones are no longer in use. As a result, around 105 million devices are currently stored in German drawers. 

NABU cell phone recycling campaign

NABU collects old cell phones and recycles them: In this way, raw materials are optimally utilized and functional devices are being resold. The money raised in this way benefits insect conservation.

So if you have an old cell phone in your closet that you no longer use, feel free to drop it off at Quartier Zukunft.  Not only will you free up space, but you will also be doing something good for bees and insects.