The Sand Paper: Shortage, Supply, & Safety

Atlantis The Palm Splasher Play Area

Atlantis The Palm Splasher Play Area

At Life Floor, we've seen a lot of sand in and around water parks, other aquatic installations, and in other human-made environments. That may not be a good thing. To paraphrase a philosopher, "We don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere." (seen here) Digging into the problem a little deeper, we realized that trucking sand into these places from mines, beaches, and riverbeds isn't just annoying, it's potentially dangerous. Here are a few reasons we think the aquatic recreation industry, and any industry, should rethink sand usage:

Issue #1: We’re Running Out of Sand

According to Dr Pascal Peduzzi in a UN report titled Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks, “Sand and gravel are mined world-wide and account for the largest volume of solid material extracted globally… [T]he world consumption of aggregates may exceed 40 billion tonnes a year. This is twice the yearly amount of sediment carried by all of the rivers of the world, making humankind the largest of the planet’s transforming agent.”

Most of the sand used in construction and on beaches is quartz sand (x), which is used because it has large enough grains to bind into concrete and is sturdy enough to withstand weathering. This type of sand isn’t manufactured yet. In fact, quartz sand starts in the mountains, breaks down from time and weather, and slowly makes it way to the ocean and beaches by way of rivers. Most of the earth’s sandy beaches were formed naturally over centuries, which is why our growing demand is starting to outstrip supply.

But, what about the deserts? The finely ground sand of the world‘s deserts may stretch as far as the eye can see, but is too fine for construction (while people are working on a solution, it isn’t in the bag yet).

According to the Independent’s 2017 article Sand Mafias and the Vanishing Islands: How the World is Dealing with the Global Sand Shortage, riverbeds are being emptied, beaches are being stripped, and “[I]n Indonesia, islands have literally vanished due to excessive mining.” (x)

The boom of developing countries has created the greatest demand for sand with the development of infrastructure. Countries such as India, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia are among the largest users of sand (x). “So enormous is China’s appetite for construction, in fact, that between 2011 and 2013 it used more concrete than the US got through in the entire 20th century.“ (x)

Aside from concrete, the demand for sand is also caused by natural phenomena. Singapore, for example, is one of the world’s biggest importers of sand as they attempt to protect the low-lying island from rising sea levels (x).

In places like Florida, where tourist communities are desperate to keep their eroding beaches from falling into the waves, beaches are replenished by the truckload. With the high costs of offshore sand dredging (sand is a heavy, therefore an expensive material to freight around) driving truckload after truckload of sand is becoming the go-to answer for community renourishment projects (x). Which brings us to issue #2...

Issue #2: Safety for Vulnerable Communities

Removing sand from its natural state influences the safety of individuals as well as entire communities. According to the article The World is Facing a Global Sand Crisis, “Sand mining has serious impacts on people’s livelihoods. Beaches and wetlands buffer coastal communities against surging seas. Increased erosion resulting from extensive mining makes these communities more vulnerable to floods and storm surges.” (x)  As countries struggle to protect their beaches from the sand shortages and global demand, “sand mafias” have formed and have created a black market founded on illegal sand mining operations. These illegal mining operations take advantage of vulnerable beaches were sand is a vital protective barrier for communities and they also pose immediate criminal implications for the area. (x)

Now that we’ve addressed the issue of sand on a global level, let’s take a look at how sand affects the aquatics industry on a day-to-day operating level...

Issue #3: Reduced Accessibility

One of the reasons many playgrounds have moved away from sand, and loose fill materials in general, is that these surfaces don’t meet ADA standards for propulsion or turning.

Modern amusement and water parks have developed initiatives to make parks and destination locales more accessible to people with mobility assistance needs, but when water parks take the term ‘beach entry’ literally and use sand as the surfacing around activity pools and wave pools, this hinders wheelchaired guests from getting to the waves.

When sand is also used around splash pads and next to concession areas, guests in wheelchairs may be separated from the simple pleasure of sitting next to their family for fear of getting stuck in the lurch.

Issue #4: Hygiene & Maintenance

The first and most obvious problem with sand, or any loose fill surface, is that you can bury things in it and it is harder to clean. Everything from glass shards, leaked “accidents”, or animal droppings can hide just below the surface (x) And the cleaning problem (and thus the hygiene problem) doesn’t just involve the sandy shores. Sand can’t be completely contained by retaining walls, which means it (and whatever else is in it) gets into pools and filters.

We’ll give you this: sand has better impact cushioning than concrete, and can help reduce fall injuries (of up to 4 ft). It also cools down more quickly than concrete (or, at least, you can dig your toes down to cooler layers).

Sand also requires daily maintenance to sweep and keep it around areas with a fall height specification (which is also a huge time burden for staff). Sand also tracks easily from one area to another, which spreads the hygienic problem to an even wider area and can even cause other surfaces to break down faster.

What Can We Do As Global Leaders?

We compiled this summary of data and research in honor of Earth Month to bring to light an environmental issue in surfacing that many of us here at Life Floor didn’t even know the extent of.  Our hope is that this post will also help educate other aquatic leaders around the world to choose sustainable options that do not further marginalize vulnerable global communities. At Life Floor, we believe as leaders we can choose to set the precedent that manufacturers and operators can partner together to alleviate and eliminate the environmental burden our current planet faces. More on our new recycling program in the next few months… but in the meantime, we wish you a safe, green, and happy Earth Month!