When it comes to the environment, gold mining is about as harmful as it gets. Gold mining so heavily scars the landscape and creates so much pollution that communities from Alaska to Costa Rica are saying no to new gold mines. The environmental devastation caused by gold mining is also the main reason why we, at Brilliant Earth, offer jewelry made from recycled and re-refined precious metals.
And yet, not all jewelry that glitters is made of gold. Platinum, prized for its durability and silvery-white hue, is the other very popular metal used in engagement rings. With Earth Day not too far behind us, this seems like a good time to ask: how bad is platinum mining for the environment? And how does it compare to gold mining?
A George Washington University study from 2010 provides some good information on this topic. The study could be summed up as follows: Platinum mining is terrible, but it could be worse. Compared with gold mining—which is really, really bad for the environment—platinum mining is just really bad.
To understand why, let’s first go back to gold mining. Most industrial gold mines today rely on a technique called open pit mining. In open pit mining, rather than dig underground tunnels, mining companies dig massive pits in the earth, scoop out all the rock and dirt, and process it all with chemicals. The process generates huge amounts of toxic waste and creates pits so large (they can be more than a mile wide and half a mile deep) that they’re visible from space.
Platinum mining, by contrast, usually stirs up the landscape to a lesser extent. For geological reasons, about 90 percent of platinum is mined from underground tunnels. Underground mining is a tad more efficient and targeted than open pit mining, and it doesn’t create giant, ugly holes. That said, underground mining is hardly benign. All that rock and dirt must still be processed, leading to the creation of toxic waste. One United Nations study found that about 10 tons of ore must be processed with chemicals to obtain a mere ounce of platinum.
Comparatively speaking, however, another relative advantage of platinum mining is that it doesn’t depend on mercury. About 10 million people worldwide are artisanal gold miners—miners, most of them impoverished, who pan or dig for gold on their own. Most artisanal gold miners rely on mercury, a toxic element that can cause neurological problems and other health issues, to isolate and extract gold. Mercury, however, doesn’t stick to platinum—or “amalgamate,” to use mining terminology. Mercury therefore isn’t used in platinum mining (which, incidentally, is almost entirely industrial and carried out by large mining firms). Mercury pollution isn’t a problem.
But if platinum mining generally is more benign than gold mining, it has its own environmental downsides. One of them is that underground platinum mining uses a lot of energy, perhaps more than gold mining. Hauling all that platinum ore to the surface takes a lot of power. And since about 75 percent of all platinum comes from South Africa, which is heavily reliant on coal to produce electricity, the carbon footprint of platinum mining is heavy.
Furthermore, although platinum mining doesn’t cause mercury pollution, the process of purifying and refining platinum is especially dirty . Platinum smelters—the facilities that refine platinum into its purest form—pollute the environment with heavy metals and other chemicals. Platinum smelters also create a solid waste called “smelter slag” that is loaded with dangerous dioxins. Gold smelting, by comparison, creates much less pollution.
We’ve been focusing on the environmental effects of platinum mining, but let’s also look at the labor considerations. Here, the story is similar: gold mining may be worse, but platinum mining isn’t far behind.
It’s true that some of the serious labor abuses found in artisanal gold mining—such as child labor and forced labor—aren’t as much of a factor in platinum mining. Most platinum miners aren’t modern day slaves.
On the other hand, platinum miners are still some of the most abused and disrespected workers in all of mining. Some South African platinum miners make so little money that they live in shantytowns without electricity or running water in their homes. These poor conditions have resulted in significant labor unrest, occasionally leading to violence. In 2012, for example, more than 50 striking miners died at the hands of police. The unrest has continued. For the past three months, South African platinum miners have been on strike again, in the longest mining strike in South African history.
What does all this mean for socially responsible jewelry consumers? If you’re shopping for a wedding or engagement ring, you could possibly make a small difference by choosing platinum over gold. But since neither metal is very shiny from a social and environmental standpoint, a much better strategy would be to pick a ring made from recycled precious metals, or an antique ring. The rest is up to you.