THE SUSTAINABLE MATERIAL GUIDEBOOK - PART 3:
IS RECYCLED JEWELLERY THE INDUSTRY'S SAVING GRACE?
By Talitha Ward
With jewellery’s environmental and social blights significantly less publicised, we wanted to ask the question - how detrimental are the impacts of the precious metal industry and what are the effects of making the switch to recycled silver and gold?
From paper and glass to cotton and polyester, it seems as though demand for anything and everything recycled has sky rocketed. Consumers are demanding more than ever from companies, and, in return, they have been granted greater accessibility to sustainable alternatives. One sector that has quietly dodged the sustainability call to action is jewellery – specifically, precious metal jewellery. Over the last few years, jewellery has been more or less exempt from the sustainability pressures that fast fashion has increasingly faced. With jewellery’s environmental and social blights significantly less publicized, we wanted to ask the question - how detrimental are the impacts of the precious metal industry and what are the effects of making the switch to recycled silver and gold?
When it comes to the mining of precious metals, it’s perhaps unfair to expect the average consumer to be fully in the know, but with a quick surface look, there is no escaping the tarnished truths. In a world plagued with climate change and increasing environmental damage, to know that metal mining can take up to 10% of the world’s energy is a weighty cost for a pair of earrings.
Not to mention, the disregard for natural forestation, unchecked use of toxic chemicals and exploitative child labour; this undeniably destructive industry has an extensive negative impact on our earth and those who inhabit it.
As one of oldest-known elements in the world you would have thought there would be some progress made on its sustainable and ethical credentials. However, the environmental and social damage caused by the silver mining industry is costly on all fronts. Once determined, the chosen landscape is quickly scrubbed of any and all biodiversity and forestation, a blank canvas for underground tunnels and mine shafts. Once anything valuable has been extracted, the barren land is left abandoned and scattered with sinkholes. The actual mining process damages the earth with intensive erosion and the chemicals used to isolate silver release toxins that contaminate the atmosphere and nearby water sources.
Socially, it doesn’t get any better. As with most industries, those lowest on the food chain (who do the most critical work) are often the most exploited. A little-known fact is that only 30% of silver comes from dedicated mines. The majority is a by-product – the results of mining other metals like copper, lead, zinc and gold. This means that exclusively silver-producing mines operate on tight margins and allow little room for fair compensation for their miners. Dangerous conditions and extremely low wages are defining characteristic of the mining industry. With Mexico and Peru being both the top two silver-producing countries in the world as well as having typical third world country unemployment levels, their populations are left with little to no choice in the matter. Doing anything to make ends meet means leaving themselves frequently vulnerable to toxic gases, lung-damaging dust, life-threatening landslides and unpredictable explosions.
After all of that, I’m sure you’re wondering how you can possibly purchase another pair of earrings. Well, here is the good news. A relatively small percentage of the global silver demand is actually for jewellery. The rest of it goes into industries like tech, kitchenware, coins, amongst a myriad of other random objects. This means that the recycling potential is endless.
So, how do you recycle silver? More importantly, how much better is it than its newly mined counterpart? There are two common processes – one by small-scale artisans and the latter by large-scale corporations (more so for cost-saving reasons than sustainability, but we’ll take what we can get).
The methods vary slightly in process but mostly on scale. The general gist is silver is collected, sorted and melted down. Once it has been liquified, it is refined to ensure the purity of the final product. After it has cooled and solidified, it is formed into bars or sheets. Sounds simple enough right? We think so too! And due to the sheer amount of silver already in circulation worldwide, it is a wonder that this recycled precious metal is not more readily used by fine jewellery brands.
What really seals the deal for us is that recycling silver produces approximately 86% less emissions than mining silver! 86%! A virgin silver ring has a carbon footprint of 7,350% more greenhouse gases than the same ring made with recycled silver. It is an almost unbelievable statistic and does a lot to drive home the damage that a small accessory can have on our planet.
Gold jewellery is representative of many things; a priceless family heirloom, a symbol of love or a celebration. However, what is hidden within these treasured pieces is destruction, social injustices and environmental damage. I’m sure we’ve all at least heard the rumors, but how dirty is gold really?
The majority of gold is sourced and mined in South Africa, Australia and China. However, 90% of workers are artisanal or small-scale gold miners (ASGM). It sounds glamourous - it is anything but. What it rather speaks to is informal and unregulated working environments. These countries and mines, with relatively smaller productions of gold, do not necessarily have a lesser social impact. For example, Venezuela’s gold reserves are controlled by armed rebels that notoriously use aggressive tactics and maintain abusive working conditions.
We can’t talk about gold without mentioning mercury. It is potentially one of the most damaging chemicals in the mining process and ASGM is the largest source of mercury pollution on Earth. In the most simplistic explanation, miners pulverize rock into powder and make an amalgam by mixing mercury with ore and water. Once heated, the mercury vaporizes into the atmosphere and leaves behind the gold. Sounds effective, right? Maybe so, but is it really worth it when you consider the lasting damage? That same mercury will go on to travel through the environment forever, bio-accumulating in animals and humans, having effects from tumors and kidney failure to even death.
Aside from toxic chemical emissions, mining gold commonly displaces biodiversity and previously undisturbed natural areas. Tailings dams, which hold mine waste, are potential disasters and in numerous cases have failed. This has resulted in contaminated drinking water, called acid mine drainage, and numerous deaths.
Similar to silver, gold can surprisingly be found in various everyday items from cars to chinaware. At present, only 10% of recycled gold comes from items other than jewellery. A brewing possibility is the sourcing of gold from electronic waste (or e-waste). It is estimated that there is approximately 0.034 grams of gold in one phone and with 1.38 billion smartphones sold in 2020 that would equal an overwhelming 47 tons of gold!
Something we haven’t mentioned yet is greenhouse gas emissions. The repetitive methods of melting and processing emit incredible amounts of the stuff. The good news is that by choosing recycled gold, you will be responsible for 99.8% less emissions than conventional gold. A virgin gold ring could come with a 64kg carbon price tag, which is especially wild when you consider that a recycled gold ring could release as little as 100 grams!
Whether silver or gold, mining virgin precious metals is undeniably damaging to the environment and contributes significantly to climate change. Socially, workers are forced into dangerous conditions and surrounding communities are left at the mercy of heavy pollution and toxic chemicals. Environmentally, the list is exhaustive. By simply making the switch to recycled jewellery you will not only reduce your own carbon footprint, but support radical brands focused on change and bettering the industry.
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