My Silica Sand Data Adventure

Two of my uncles run a janitorial supply company. One of them emailed me asking how to research Total Available Market for cigarette ashtray sand, which is just silica sand. Though all sand is silica, the phrase “silica sand” usually refers to a preprocessed sand for commercial use of some type (like in an ashtray).

Total Available Market loosely refers to the upper-bound on demand for a market. There aren’t many databases that cover the market for cigarette ashtray sand, so, I decided to go on a hunt.

I somewhat recently read Superforecasters and it opened my eyes a bit about breaking estimates down into sub-problems for a fast, accurate method. I decided to do it to estimate total silica sand demand in the U.S. for a year.

I broke the problem down this way: find the total number of smokers, then the amount of ashtray sand used per smoker.

Total Number of Smokers

The first part (number of smokers) was easy because the CDC has data:

In 2015, about 15 of every 100 U.S. adults aged 18 years or older (15.1%) currently* smoked cigarettes. This means an estimated 36.5 million adults in the United States currently smoke cigarettes.

How Much Silica Sand Per Smoker?

The next step, figuring out a precise estimate of how much ashtray sand the average smoker uses, was a bit tougher, because it’s such a narrow market. I broke this down further into a group of 3 problems.

1. How many cigarettes does the average smoker use? The CDC says 14.2 per day = 5183 per year. (This was super surprising to me. A pack of cigarettes usually has 20.)

2. What percentage of the time do smokers dispose of cigarettes in an ashtray? This is where it got really, really interesting to me.

It turns out cigarette litter is a big, big problem, so there is a fair amount of research on the topic. For my purposes, the most useful study I found was an observational study about litter in general, but with a special section on smokers. Researchers actually watched thousands of smokers to see what they would do after smoking. In their sample, smokers littered their cigarette butts 57% of the time. They also noted that only 61% of the sites they observed has ashtrays.

From hunting around for a second estimate, I found a claim (this one unsupported) that about 30% of the time cigarettes end up as litter. I took the average of the observational study’s estimate and the 30% and settled on my estimate that 43% of the time smokers litter their cigarette butts. That means the rest of the time smokers use an ashtray, or 57% of the time.

3. How much sand is used, on average to dispose of a cigarette? This was the toughest of all, and I had to use some really rough figuring. I saw from vendors online that most cigarette urns take about 3–5 lbs of sand and hold about 3000–4000 butts. That suggests about 1 pound of sand per 1000 butts.

Finally, with all the pieces in place, I could finally do the calculation: 5183 cigarettes per year * 36.5 million smokers * 57% disposed in an ashtray ~ 107.8 billion cigarettes disposed of in ashtrays in a year. Divide by 1000 to get number of pounds of ashtray sand ~ 107.8 million pounds of ashtray sand in the US per year.

As I did my digging, I found that silica sand is also used in pool filters and fireplaces, which may increase the Total Available Market. My estimate above, however, is conservative.

What I learned

There are a few lessons in my data hunt that may be generalizable.

1. The power of breaking a problem into sub-problems. The scope of problems that you can approach with this method is massive. This is a powerful insight for businesspeople, I think, because there are so many occasions when you don’t have time but need to put some hard figures to something. Often in those situations nobody has a ready-made database sitting around for you.

2. Problem Discovery in Secondary Data. The key to successful commercial innovations is in finding important problems that people will pay to solve. In digging through an observational study for an unrelated reason, I discovered a big problem that isn’t well solved: cigarette litter. Perhaps this problem will go away with smokeless cigarettes, who knows. My point is not about this specific case, it’s that secondary data probably holds untapped mines of important problems waiting to be solved.

I hope you enjoyed the adventure as much as I did.