Sustainable means: “the quality of being able to continue over a period of time”
“Causing, or made in a way that causes, little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time” (Cambridge Dictionary)
By definition the mining of minerals be they precious gemstones or gold, (or other things such as coal, oil, copper, iron or lithium etc) is not sustainable. This is because they are finite resources – once it’s been dug up you can’t mine more.
It could be argued that some methods of mining are more sustainable than others due to the way in which they are mined, i.e. small scale and artisanal mining. However the large mining companies aim is to get as much out, as quickly as possible to maximise profits. It is estimated that 80% of the worlds gold is mined by these large mining companies.
Even in developed countries, where there are higher levels of environmental protection in place, mining causes huge environmental damage. It uses massive amounts of energy (electricity – lots of mining is done in countries where power stations are coal fired, transport, machinery) and contributes thousands of Kg’s of carbon into the earths atmosphere. Amongst other things it can displace people and animals, cause damage to pristine wilderness, the sea bed, rivers etc and pollutants can leach into groundwater.
The worlds largest gold mine is Muruntau in Uzbekistan, you can see images of it, and other mines, taken by NASA, here
Artisanal and small scale mining often (but not always) causes less environmental damage because it’s on a much smaller scale, is less likely to use large machinery and therefore uses less energy and gives out less carbon. At its worst, it can be unsafe for the people, communities and local ecosystems. At it’s best, it can support local communities, help with standards of living (schools, roads, healthcare, clean water, provide training so that miners know what their product is worth, ensure children benefit from schooling instead of working in the mines, improve health and safety).
Artisanal and small scale mining is more sustainable than large scale industrial mining. It isn’t however truly sustainable because the gold and gemstones are a finite resource.
It is estimated that there’s 50,000 tons of gold left in the world and that if we continue to mine it at the same rate we do today, supplies will run out by 2050.
Gold, however can be recycled – refined, re-alloyed and reused. Recycled gold and gemstones and therefore the jewellery made from it, is sustainable, but there are some issues – more of that in a future post.