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Glass may face the problem of lack of raw materials

The world is facing a growing shortage of sand that could stifle the production of everything from smartphones and office buildings to billions of glass vials of Covid-19 vaccines, the United Nations Environment Programme said recently. After water, sand is reportedly the world's most consumed raw material, used to make glass, concrete, asphalt and even silicon microchips.

We never thought we'd run out of sand, but the problem of sand shortages is a problem, according to Pascal Peduzzi, UNEP's climate scientist and director of the Geneva Global Resource Information Database (GRID), in a recent webinar hosted by think tank Chatham House. Some places have already started.

Sand, gravel and crushed stone have been in short supply over the past decade, driven by growing construction developments and demand for smartphones and other personal technologies that use screens.

According to UNEP, the construction industry alone uses about 40 billion to 50 billion tons of sand every year. That's a 300 percent increase from 20 years ago, and it would take every river on Earth two years to fill the void.

According to GRID's Global Sand Observation Programme, demand is still growing due to urbanisation, population growth and infrastructure development trends, which are expected to continue.

It is reported that although the desert occupies one-third of the earth's area, the desert sand is too smooth and round to be suitable for construction. Efforts to extract sand are concentrated in more fragile environments such as rivers, coastlines and seabeds, which have serious impacts on local ecosystems.

There has also been a global shortage of glass since at least 2015, with real estate developers sometimes waiting months to install windows on bare skyscrapers, as sand is the main ingredient in the glass, according to reports.

The lack of glass is particularly worrying given the billions of vials and syringes needed to get a Covid-19 vaccine around the world. The medical glass industry was just starting to catch up with demand in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent vaccine rollout set things back considerably.

Italian vial maker Stevanato Group says global demand for vials will increase by as much as 2 billion in the next two years.

The Global Resource Information Database (GRID) calls on governments and businesses to address desertification issues in a timely manner, such as establishing global standards and viable alternatives, and doing more to protect vulnerable habitats. Researchers have reportedly started working on alternatives to sand, including volcanic ash, agricultural waste and fly ash (a byproduct of coal combustion).