Sand wars: why designers should care that the world’s sand is disappearing

Sand samples

The planet's sand reserves are under serious threat. Fuelled by a worldwide construction boom and increasing urbanisation, aggressive sand mining is eroding beaches, damaging infrastructure, disrupting ecosystems and giving rise to illegal trade governed by a brutal ’sand mafia’ that isn’t afraid to kill.

The UN estimates (opens in new tab) that the mining of sand and gravel may exceed 40 billion tonnes a year. The problem is that the material is being extracted at a rate far greater than its renewal: three-quarters (opens in new tab) of the world's beaches are in decline, and that’s just the start of it. 

But sand plays a key role in our daily lives. It’s not just in our concrete – our houses, studios, pavements and roads. Sand is made from silicon dioxide, which can be found in a phenomenal range of products that we use on a daily basis: paper, glass, cleaning products, toothpaste, wine and so on.  

So what happens if the world runs out of sand? And what are we doing to preserve it? Those were the questions posed by Dutch designer Lonny van Ryswyck at Design Indaba 2018 (opens in new tab) in Cape Town last week.

Different coloured sand samples in cups

Atelier NL's Sandbank represents a study of sands from the Netherlands and beyond

The Atelier NL (opens in new tab) co-founder’s latest project, A World of Sand (opens in new tab), seeks to create stronger ties between the earth’s materials and living communities, while also drawing attention to sand as a vastly diminishing resource. 

Since 2010, van Ryswyck and her studio partner Nadine Sterk have been collecting wild sand from dunes, beaches, rivers, mountains and quarries to make their own glass. The pair melt the sand specimens down to reveal the stunning, unique colours and textures of each location, before reshaping the material into tangible, every day objects. 

A collection of glasses, plates and vases made from glass

Atelier NL's ZandGlas line features designer glass objects made from fused sand

They’ve also called upon the global community to send in samples. Slowly, through a process of research and experimentation, Atelier NL is mapping the earth (opens in new tab) via its local raw materials – and the studio is sharing the stories of its sand contributors.

“70 per cent of the world’s beaches are disappearing,” van Ryswyck told the Design Indaba audience. “We want to help people see things in a different way. It’s about abundance and scarcity: if can find balance, it’s one way for change.”

Can the world’s disappearing sand problem be tackled with design? Yes, says van Ryswyck – if we can work together on the solution. “Just like gains of sand, we all have different backgrounds and paths,” she said. “If we come together, we can make beautiful colours.”

Submit your own sand sample to the project at the World of Sand website (opens in new tab).

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Julia Sagar
Editor-in-chief retail

Julia is editor-in-chief, retail at Future Ltd, where she works in e-commerce across a number of consumer lifestyle brands. A former editor of design website Creative Bloq, she’s also worked on a variety of print titles, and was part of the team that launched consumer tech website TechRadar. She's been writing about art, design and technology for over 15 years.

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