Let’s talk about sand: Denis Delestrac at TEDxBarcelona

Let’s talk about sand: Denis Delestrac at TEDxBarcelona

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Cristina Bufi-Pöcksteiner Thank you, thank you. I’ve got 15 minutes. I’ve got 15 minutes of sand right here. And, hopefully, in 15 minutes, the next time you go to the beach, you look at the beach in a whole new way. I grew up, the first years of my life, from zero to eight, on the Atlantic Coast, in Brittany. And that’s where, I think, I started to fall in love
with the sea and with the beach. Later, my parents moved
to the South of France, but far from any coast,
hundreds of kilometres from any coast. And somehow, I found my way
to the beach each time that I could. When I was a student, for example, to pay for my studies, I worked as a beach boy
or as a bartender on the beach. Later, when I could,
I went on a vacation to the beach, and that is where I gave my first kiss – I fell in love for the first time. That’s where I made friends
that are still around. And when I reached 30 years old, actually the day of my birthday,
my 30th birthday – I was living in Paris at the time,
I was a journalist – I said, “I’m kind of tired
of seeing this gray sky every day, and I miss the beach, and I’m tired of seeing the gray faces
every day in the metro.” So I moved to Barcelona, and I am here since then. But this whole time, I looked at the beach
and was focusing on the beach, and I was in love with the beach, but I never paid any attention
to what the beach is made of: sand. Until one day, here
in this city, in Barcelona, I was ending a long film production in Montreal, in Canada. It was cold; it was the winter of 2010. And I needed to clear my mind, I needed to relax. And what I really needed
was to take my shoes off and walk on the beach. So that’s what I did. I took my bicycle and went
down to the beach here in Barcelona, but the beach I found was not my beach. This winter of 2010, this Sunday morning, the beach had almost disappeared; the sand had gone. For the first time in my life, I asked myself very simple questions: Where is the sand going? Or, where does the sand come from? So I came back home,
and I started to investigate. And the first thing I found
when I looked on the internet for “sand” was a quote, and this quote
said exactly this: “In every grain of sand
there is a history of the earth.” This is from Rachel Carson, mother
of the Environmental Movement in the U.S., and she said that in the 1940s. What did she mean? Most of the beaches we know –
90% of the beaches of the world – originate here, in the mountains. In this part of Europe, the beaches we know originate
in the Alps or in the Pyrenees. And that is a process
that takes a lot of time. The weathering, the icing, de-icing, rain, winds, centuries, millenniums erode the mountains. And what they do is these big rocks fragment
into smaller rocks. Eventually, they fragment into stones. Eventually, these stones
will reach a little stream. Eventually, these little streams
and the stones will reach a larger river. Eventually, some of these grains
will make it to a delta. And that’s where the tides
and the waves and the currents are going to move these grains around. And sometimes these grains are going
to stick in one place for a while, they’re going to move. And that place,
that’s what we call the beach. So that replies pretty much
to the first question, where does the sand come from? Now, where is the sand going? And let me ask you
one very simple question, and I want you to answer –
don’t be shy, okay? Where do we find sand on the earth today? Where? (Audience) The beach. The beach. Where else? (Audience) Deserts. In the deserts. Yes,
we’re going to talk about that. (Audience) Rivers. Rivers. Great. You’re all right. We can find sand in all these places and sometimes in quarries also. But there is more to it. We can find sand right here, around us – we don’t see it, but it’s all around us. Where? You know we all use sand
in glass, for example. Glass is made out of sand. But what’s in the glass right here? Wine. There is one extremely valuable
mineral in sand, and it’s called “silicon dioxide.” And silicon dioxide,
we find it in the wine, the wine we drink. We find it in the foods – everything that is dehydrated
or powdered contains, somehow, sand. It also is, you know, toothpaste, you know, cosmetics, hairspray, paper, microchips we use to make
our computers or smartphones. When you fly on a plane,
you’re surrounded by sand. How? Because we use sand in the plastics, in the lightweight alloys
to make the engine. We use sand in the paint; we use sand even in the tires. But this is nothing. The world champion of sand consumption, of course, is concrete. 80% of everything that is built today
in the world is made of concrete. And concrete itself is made
for 80% of sand and gravel. Sand is the most consumed
resource on Earth, after fresh water and the air. We consume a lot of sand, and, actually, the quantities
are quite disturbing. For one average house, we’re going to use 200 tons of sand. For a larger building
like this one, a hospital, we’re going to need 3,000 tons of sand. Each kilometer of highway requires 30,000 tons of sand. And when we build something
like a nuclear power plant, that takes a lot,
a lot, and a lot of sand. I’ll let you see how much. 12 million tons of sand. And, of course, this sand, we have to find it somewhere. In the last century, the industry, the aggregate industry – that’s what we call this industry – went to the quarries, went to the rivers, but now those sources
are reaching a tipping point. There’s still some sand,
but not enough to respond to the demand. So where does the industry go? It turns towards the sea. And the workhorse of this industry
is called the “dredger.” And the dredger is a gigantic cargo ship that goes to the sea
and pumps from the seafloor. And there are three problems with that, when you take sand from the seafloor. The first problem is that the seafloor
is not covered by sand. That’s what I thought
before the investigation. I thought, you know,
the sea is full of sand. But it’s not like that; it’s covered by a very thin layer of sand,
and it’s mostly rocky. Second problem with that: This layer of sand is the base
of all the marine life. All the microorganisms
which live in the sand feed the little fish
who live in the bottom of the sea, who themselves feed
the bigger fish and the bigger fish, and, eventually, they feed us, at the end of the chain. And third problem – and I’m sure you’ve all experienced
this sometimes on the beach. If you go to the beach,
and you dig a little hole with your hand where the waves come, after a couple of waves,
the hole has disappeared. Why is that? Because sand is the most
dynamic resource on Earth; it moves all the time. When you take sand from the seafloor, the effect of the gravity,
the tides and the waves are going to have an impact on the beach. And this beach, little by little,
is going to disappear. And that’s exactly
what is happening to the world and to my beach here,
in Barcelona, when I went there. Where was the beach? Actually, between 75 and 90%
of the beaches in the world are shrinking. They are retreating,
meaning that they are disappearing. Beaches do disappear all the time. What do we do when we want
the tourists to come to the beach? We take some sand somewhere, we pump it somewhere, and we put it back on the beach
at the beginning of the summer. There’s another problem: We need energy, and we
build dams around the world. In the U.S., we’ve built
80,000 dams already. In China, by 2020,
not one river will reach the sea. And in the world, we’ve built 845,000 dams. And these dams don’t hold just water; they trap sand. And half of the sand that could
reach the sea someday, somehow, will never reach the sea, because it’s blocked
behind the walls of the dams. But we need to build, so how do we do it? I’ll take an example. In Dubai, what have we done? We’ve gone to the seafloor
and pumped a whole lot of sand. And with all this sand
we’ve created artificial islands. The Palm is here. There is also the World. And one little problem with that
is that we exhausted the sand. There is no more sand
on the seafloor in the Emirates. Why don’t they just go to the desert
and take all the sand they want and build forever? Well, there’s a little problem with that. And that’s the irony of nature. Desert sand is what
the industry calls “bad sand.” Why is it bad sand? Because it’s round. The grains have been polished
by the winds and by the time, and they don’t stick together. To make concrete
or to build an artificial island, you need sand that sticks together,
that has rough edges. And sea sand has rough edges –
that’s sea or river sand. This sand is basically worthless. But, of course, Dubai wanted
to make more buildings, wanted to keep growing, so they went to Australia to buy sand because they’re out of sand. Actually, all the countries in the Gulf
and many countries in the world have to buy sand
because they’re out of sand, and they need to import the sand. And it’s a big business;
it’s about 70 billion dollars a year. And there is a problem with sand – you can go to the beach, right here, you can load a trailer, and you can sell the sand. You can go at night. You can steal the sand. And that’s what happens in the world. Illegal sand mining. Illegal beach-sand mining
happens in about 70 countries, and beaches disappear. In India, the sand mafia is the most powerful
criminal organization of the country; people kill for sand, in India. And it happens very often. People kill for sand. By 2100, when you want to see a beach, the only thing you will be able to do
is to open a history book. Because they all
are going to have disappeared. But now, I have good news: we can turn the tide, it doesn’t have to be that way. We can make things differently; we can build things differently; and we can think differently. There’s many options. In Florida, where 90%
of the beaches are disappearing, they had this problem
and had another problem, they had all this glass. When you go to the recycling container, you throw this glass –
you want to recycle. But 30% of this glass
is never going to be recycled, because of color or
because it is going to be broken, because of several reasons. They said, “We’ve got this glass
and we’ve got this lack of sand. What do we do?” And one guy said, “Let’s try
to crush the glass and see what happens.” And that’s exactly what they did. They crushed the glass
and created one thing which is the recycled-glass sand. And this sand, you can put it
on the beach to replenish the beach, and people love it,
they don’t get bloody feet there; it’s just like sand. You don’t even see the difference. And even the sea turtles, who had abandoned the beaches in Florida, are coming back, and they
lay their eggs on those beaches. There’s many measures
that could be taken, of course, but they require people to know
there is a problem, first, and they require that the message
goes up and reaches, of course, the spheres of decision-making
and the politics, etcetera. Just ending with one personal thing. I have a daughter, her name is Ines,
she’s five years old, and she loves the beach. And she loves to run on the beach,
and to make sand castles and to play in the sand. So for her, for us, for all the children in the world, for all the generations to come, we need to start to understand
how the beaches work, to respect the sand, and to spread the word. Let’s not let the beaches disappear. Thank you. (Applause)

12 thoughts on “Let’s talk about sand: Denis Delestrac at TEDxBarcelona

  1. Why not putting "useless" desert sand from countries in middle east on to beaches around the world? They don't want those desert anyway….

  2. or you could just go to the Sahara, get some sand, and use it to replace the sand taken from the beach. Desert sand is not good for construction but I can't find any indication that desert sand is not good for the beach.

  3. the documentary 'Sand Wars' from 2013, was one of the best docs i'd ever watched. so informative and this really is an explosive topic. but most people haven't a clue.

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