Not on my beach

The great German sand shortage

sand wars in germany
Don't try this on Sylt. Source: DPA

On the beloved German holiday island of Sylt, you can swim, surf, rub shoulders with some of the country’s wealthiest folks and sunbathe naked. But there is one thing that you cannot do — build a sandcastle. In fact, if you construct a sand home, you may well be fined €1,000 by the local authorities.

Officials justify the draconian edict in multiple ways. Obviously, if a hole is too big or a tower too high, a sandcastle may endanger unwary passers-by. But also: Sand that has been dug up and turned into a castle is more easily blown away. And this is a problem because there is a sand shortage brewing in Germany.

Sand is an vital resource worldwide, used for everything from ingredients for toothpaste and for silicon in electrical appliances to cement on the streets and construction materials in every building. Sand is the most used resource on the planet, with 40 billion tons used in construction over the past year, as part of a $70 billion industry. Germany uses about 4.6 tons per citizen every year.

But there’s a growing shortage worldwide. Experts talk about “peak sand” today the way they used to talk about “peak oil.” And it is increasingly rare for Germany to open up new opportunities for sand extraction, despite the country’s ever-growing need for the material.

“There are no conflict-free extraction sites anymore,” says sand lobbyist Thomas Beisswenger, head of industry association ISTE, making it harder to get as much sand as is required. He has only seen a handful of extraction sites open up in the past decade, as he’s seen about 50 close. Around three-quarters of those closures were spurred by citizen initiatives. “Not in my backyard” is a big motivation, Mr. Beisswenger says.

sand mining in germany
Wanted. Source: DPA

Outside one of these conflict-riven extraction spots, Helge-Alexander List is waiting. The suit-wearing gentleman used to be an investment banker but switched to sand because it offered a better business opportunity. He is waiting for Mr. Beisswenger outside the Göggingen gravel pit in Baden-Württemberg, where a small version of the nationwide drama is playing out. The pit’s funders are at the end of their tether. The machines are here and ready to go, in what is supposed to be a state-of-the-art sand and lime extraction site. But the machines have been standing here and approval for the pit is still not forthcoming, almost 10 years later.

In the past, it was nature lovers who used to protest sand mines. But over time, friends of the earth have come to see sand mines a little differently: They provide jobs and sponsor the local soccer teams and also end up as a kind of nature reserve. “Today our biggest opponents are the neighborhood initiatives,” Mr. List says.

One neighborhood opponent is Wolfgang Veeser. “We don’t have anything against the lime workers in general,” Mr. Veeser says. “We just have something against them being here,” says the co-founder of a group called Livable Göggingen. Where Mr. List envisions profits, Mr. Veeser and his colleagues see pollution and rubbish and processions of dirty trucks on their idyllic country roads. “We moved to the countryside to get some peace and quiet,” he says.

Getting permission for sand mining requires as much as 30 years of planning. About 40 different government offices, institutes and associations touch the permits, and one of the requirements is that each German state may only have as many sand mines as it requires for its own purposes. The civil servants granting the permissions have to have foresight, but they definitely didn’t predict Germany’s current construction boom.

sand on a sylt beach
Sitting on millions. Source: DPA

Looking at the maps Harald Elsner has in his office in Hanover, it quickly becomes clear it isn’t that Germany lacks sand, it lacks locations to extract it. At the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, Mr. Elsner is responsible for overseeing native resources.

There are “almost endless quantities” of sand, Mr. Elsner says, but doesn’t help the situation. Most of the potential extraction sites cannot be used because of competing usages, he notes. Almost 85 percent of possible sites are already denoted as roads, reserves, railroad tracks, industrial areas or even cities.

According to Mr. Elsner, this is because sand is an undervalued resource. We thought we had as much sand as there are grains on the beach, he says, but it turns out to be far scarcer than most people think.

Which brings us back to Sylt. It’s possible that the future of Germany’s sand supply lies under the sea off the coast of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Studies are being conducted worldwide to see how and where sand ends up, as it is swept along by the tides and by human activity. Extraction’s impact on nature is also unknown. Sylt used to change its position every year, as the tides and wind eroded its sandy base.

“First of all, we need to understand the basic process,” says Finn Mielck, a geologist with the Alfred Wegener Institute, whose work on sand movement will form part of a worldwide study. Three-quarters of the world’s population currently live in coastal areas, and nine out of 10 beachfronts in the world are being eroded because of the urge for sand. “After that we’ll be able to calculate models, that function worldwide,” Mr. Mielck says.

Any sand extraction process here will certainly not be conflict-free, though. Sylt needs its beaches to survive. Currently the locals are pumping up sand up from the seafloor, 1 million cubic meters every year, to make more beaches and compensate for what gets swept away. After all, tourism, in the form of 4.6 million overnight stays, brought €661 million to the island last year. In a way, a cubic meter of sand on Sylt is worth €661 each. And all of a sudden the sandcastle ban starts to make a lot more sense.

A version of this article appeared in the business weekly Wirtschaftswoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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