Glass has become the hero child of packaging in recent years and it's easy to understand why. It fully biodegrades (albeit over a long period of time), it's not made up of petrochemicals and it can be recycled as many times over as we like. But, did you know that there is a dark side to the raw material that makes glass?
Unfortunately due to the growing demand and lack of recycling infrastructure glass and its raw material (sand) is fast becoming a scare commodity and it's an issue that we cannot, and should not ignore.
It's easy to forget that the raw material for glass is sand, and that sand, whilst it might seem plentiful is actually being harvested at unsustainable rates and is at the centre of a wave of violence (Two Indian villagers killed in a gun battle, a South African Entrepreneur shot dead and a Mexican environmental activist murdered in 2019!) Unfortunately the same raw material that makes glass (like the glass in smartphones, the glass bottles our drinks and some products come in and so forth) is also the same raw material that makes up the backbone of the 21st century infrastructure from roads to city buildings.
Sand might seem limitless, but did you know that it is the most-consumed natural resource on the planet aside from water. Around 50 billion tonnes of sand, or as the industry calls it "aggregate" a mixture of sand and gravel is used every year, and unfortunately not all of the sand on our planet is of use to us. The sand we use is more angular, not shaped by wind but by water, it's found in the beds, on the banks and floodplains of rivers, as well as lakes and seashore. The demand now so high that in some parts of the world beaches and rivers are destroyed and criminal gangs are beginning to move into the trade creating a black market (often times lethal) for the commodity, and every year millions of tonnes of sand are dredged from the sea floor, piling it on costal areas to create land where there was none (or where it's been harvested away).
Dredging comes at a large cost, entire livelihoods are destroyed as the aquatic life is pushed far from its original location or decimated by the change and countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia have no put restrictions on exports of sand to Singapore.
The biggest issue is our rapid urbanisation, the fact that more and more cities are expanding or popping up to house the rapidly growing population of our planet. In Dubai the demand for certain types of sand is so high that they are even importing it from Australia!
But, the demand for high-purity silica sands, which make glass as well as things like solar panels and computer chips is soaring. The competition is now so fierce for sand that in parts of Latin America and Africa children forced to work pretty much as slaves are now working in sand mines.
Whilst we cannot actively do much about the consumption of sand within the global infrastructure, after all we need to live in house and drive on roads. We can impact in a small way a part of the industry that does not need the raw commodity anymore. Glass, unfortunately is rarely recycled and is in many cases used to cover landfill in order to stop odours and fires from breaking out. We as consumers must make the conscious effort to limit waste and to stop treating glass as a throwaway commodity, it is not. We must look for recycled glass wherever possible and remember that not all towns, counties and governments have the infrastructure to recycle glass so we cannot rely on the recycling chain to make our glass consumption circular.