Q12 – Most used raw material

This question was asked to the public in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the UK in the Sustainable Development Misconception Study 2020

In December 2020 Gapminder launches a brand new service for upgrading your worldview, where you will be able to take this (and many other) tests and become certified gapm.io/upgrader


After water, which raw material is most used in the world in terms of volume?

a) Oil

b) Sand

c) Wood

Correct answer

Ten times more sand is used compared to oil and wood.

Lots of everyday things are made from sand

Sand and gravel is mostly used in construction in things like concrete, glass, asphalt and electronics. The best kind of sand for construction is often found in rivers and lakes, and the mining of it is often unregulated and causes huge damage to these ecosystems.

Sand somehow has slipped between most environmentalists’ fingers. Every year around 40-50 billion tonnes of sand and gravel is extracted, which is roughly half of the total weight of all materials extracted totally. In comparison, around 4 billion tonnes of oil and 2 billion tonnes of wood are being extracted yearly. 

“Sand resource governance is one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st century.”

writes UN Environmental Programme(UNEP) in this report.

Data explanation

The studies available[1][2], show similar estimates of the amount of sand and gravel mined every year. The lowest estimate we have seen is 32 billion tonnes[2] but that was some years ago. The UN puts it around 40 to 50 billion tonnes [1]. The amount of oil extracted every year is much less, around 4 tonnes, and the amount of wood used is around 2 billion tonnes[2]. The total weight of a material doesn’t represent its total environmental impact.

Source 1 – UN Environment Programme

Source 2 – From resource extraction to outflows of wastes and emissions: The socioeconomic metabolism of the global economy, 1900–2015 by Fridolin Krausmann, Christian Lauk, Willi Haas and Dominik Wiedenhofer in Global Environmental Change in July 2018.