When Every Non-Renewable Resource Will Run Out, And How Humanity Will Deal

Given the multitude of products made from non-renewable resources, it is concerning that many of Earth's essential commodities are running out. Renewable energy is becoming more popular, but these technologies are still in their infancy and won't be able to replace every non-renewable material we need to keep our society going. Fossil fuels usually get the most attention when we discuss important environmental issues, but there are other critical non-renewable resources to consider. Water, rare elements, and even sand are also at risk. 

Many staples of modern life, including computers and other advanced technologies, rely on minerals and ores that can take millions of years to form through natural processes. As countries like China and India continue to develop, the demand for these finite materials is skyrocketing. It's only a matter of time before humanity runs out of the basic building blocks of of the modern world, and a massive resource shortage could be closer than you think. While scientists are developing ways to save non-renewable resources, the future remains uncertain. This is why finding ways to help the environment is so vital - and as of 2018, these are all the resources that have nearly reached their limits.

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  • Sand - 2020
    Photo: Foter / CC0 1.0

    Sand - 2020

    The Situation: This might sound ridiculous, but it's true. The construction industry relies on sand, a material that is actually the most mined mineral in the world. Countries like Vietnam could run out of construction grade sand as early as 2020, and many regions are seeing massive depletions of their natural sand supplies. This has sparked an international trading industry that sees countries selling their sand abroad for top dollar, and there is little in the way of regulation for this booming trade. It's unclear how long it will take for the world's supply to shrivel up, but it's a looming threat that needs to be addressed.

    The Plan: So far, there doesn't seem to be a clear solution to the issue. It wasn't really widespread knowledge - even in the scientific community - until a 2017 study, and it can take a long time to generate the political mobilization and public awareness necessary to encourage conservation efforts. A couple of German researchers are experimenting with combining desert sand with synthetic resin to create a product similar to construction grade sand. There is also talk of recycling concrete or exploring alternatives like wood for construction purposes. 

  • Rare Earth Elements - Between 2033 And 2038
    Photo: Peggy Greb, US department of agriculture / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Rare Earth Elements - Between 2033 And 2038

    The Situation: Many of the technologies we take for granted today are packed with some of the rarest materials on Earth. Your phone might have as many as 64 unique elements inside of it, and they are all necessary for it to properly function. There are 17 elements that make up a category known as "rare earth elements," and these elements are crucial to modern life. Each one is considered a type of metal, and 15 of them all belong to one group of metals called lanthanides.

    Roughly 90% of our rare earth metal supply is produced in China. Chinese mines are starting to run dry, and they may be out of rare earth metals in the next 15 to 20 years.

    The Plan:  Luckily, there are other deposits throughout the world that could be tapped. Manufacturers are looking at these sites as a possible new source of rare earth metals, but it will take time to build the mines and develop the infrastructure necessary to access them. Consumers are also being increasingly encouraged to recycle rather than discard electronic products, so rare elements can be reused. 

  • Gold - 2038
    Photo: Andrzej Barabasz (Chepry) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Gold - 2038

    The Situation: The gold rush might finally be over, according to some experts. Gold is one of the most highly valued metals on the planet, and not just because it looks pretty. Trace amounts of gold can be found in all sorts of electronics, and that's becoming a problem. The world's gold mines are quickly running dry, and fewer new deposits have been discovered in the last decades. Experts believe that we may have found all of the significant gold deposits on the planet, and we only have about 20 years worth of gold left in the current mines.

    The Plan: People keep looking for new deposits, but there is no guarantee of finding any. In the meantime, recycling old electronics more frequently might help. As is the case with many of Earth's depleting resources, the precise solution remains unclear. 

  • Helium - Between 2043 And 2048
    Photo: Foter / CC0 1.0

    Helium - Between 2043 And 2048

    The Situation: Most people only know helium as the gas in balloons, but it's actually an essential element that is used for everything from MRI machines to military-grade radiation monitors. We can't make helium ourselves, and the only known sources are from the sun and the process of radioactive decay in Earth rocks. Our planet's supply of helium took billions of years to generate, and it could be gone in the next 25 to 30 years.

    Because the US government decided to sell most of its helium stock at dirt cheap prices, we are burning through our supply at a ridiculous speed.

    The Plan: Right now, conservation is the best bet if we're going to keep using helium Unlike other resources, we are unlikely to find other deposits on earth and - even with new technology - it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make helium in a lab. So next time you think about buying balloons for a birthday party, remember that every one of them is bringing us closer to a helium apocalypse. 

  • Lithium - 2068
    Photo: Mariordo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Lithium - 2068

    The Situation: Batteries made with lithium are the most common and cost effective, making the substance incredibly valuable in the modern world. Lithium-ion batteries exploded onto the market place in the '90s and have been a staple ever since, but increased demand has put a strain on supply. The electric car boom, led largely by Tesla Motors, has even further exacerbated the issue. While 2015 estimates said our current supply of lithium could last for another 365 years, the recent uptick in demand has whittled that number down to just 50 years. The more extreme estimates say we could be out of lithium in just 17 years, although that is much less likely. 

    The Plan: It's becoming increasingly clear that, no matter what type of energy is used, we can't keep making cars forever. We don't have a good alternative to lithium, and it's unlikely that we can scale up production to meet the growing demand. We are going to have to adapt to a world without lithium at some point, but the answer has not shown itself quite yet. 

  • Copper - Between 2043 And 2078
    Photo: Jon Sullivan / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Copper - Between 2043 And 2078

    The Situation: The world's copper supply is dwindling, and the rapid growth of developing nations and the housing market's recovery is putting a strain on the world's already diminished supply. About a third of all copper mined is used in construction, and the booming construction industry in China is seeing a huge spike in copper demand. Production cannot keep up with demand, so the future of copper is in dire straits. Experts believe that we may run out of this resource in as little as 25 years, although other estimates claim that 60 years is a more realistic timetable.

    The Plan: Minimizing the use of copper and finding a suitable replacement are the best ways to ensure that every country has access to the basic building materials needed to thrive. Many research efforts are underway, using materials such as carbon, to replace copper should the supply run out.