Gold jewelry is a symbol of love and admiration, a precious possession with a high financial value and usually an even higher personal value because of the meaning it holds for the wearer.
But beautiful gold jewelry often has an ugly backstory: the steep environmental and human costs of dirty gold mining. To mark Earth Day, we’re shedding light on the dark side of gold, and our reasons for using recycled gold in our jewelry.
Gold mining scars the land
Most gold (about two thirds) is mined via a process called “open pit” mining, through which huge quantities of soil and earth are dug up or blasted away in search of gold, creating vast craters. According to environmental watchdog Earthworks, 20 tons of rock and soil are displaced to produce a single gold ring! The results include soil erosion, clogged waterways, and badly damaged local ecosystems.
Gold mining creates toxic waste
It’s not easy to extract gold from the rock that surrounds it, and a technique called “heap leaching” is often used. In heap leaching, cyanide is poured over huge piles of ore, and as the chemical trickles down through the pile it bonds with the gold and removes it from the surrounding rock. More chemicals are then used to separate the gold from the cyanide, creating large amounts of toxic waste.
Gold mining leads to mercury pollution
You’ve probably heard that mercury is a health hazard, and that pregnant women are advised to limit their consumption of certain fish that are high in mercury. But while mercury pollution is most often discussed as fall out of coal-fired power plants, the number one cause of mercury pollution worldwide is actually gold mining. Small-scale miners separate gold from ore by binding the gold to mercury, then dissolving or evaporating the mercury so that only the gold is left behind. The resulting mercury vapor is extremely harmful both to the miners and to the larger environment, and the EPA estimates that small-scale gold mining releases 400 metric tons of this airborne elemental mercury annually. Too much mercury exposure can cause neurological damage and harm organs throughout the body.
Dirty gold mining pollutes water
Environmentalists warn that the planet is facing a clean water crisis, and gold mining contributes to the problem by polluting waterways. According to Earthworks, mining companies annually dump 180 million tons of toxic waste into rivers, lakes and oceans. That waste includes metals, arsenic, cyanide, acids and petroleum byproducts. Although there are some responsible mines that take precautions to prevent water pollution, these mines often store their mining waste in dams which can fail and cause disastrous contamination years later.
Mining destruction lasts for decades
Even once a gold mine is closed it may leave a legacy of pollution that threatens the environment for generations. Last August a maintenance accident at an abandoned gold mine in Colorado called the Gold King Mine, which hadn’t operated since the 1920s, broke open and released a flood of waste into surrounding rivers. More than three million gallons of acidic water containing toxic chemicals turned the rivers yellow-orange, polluting a water supply relied upon by communities in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation.
Gold mining threatens animal and plant diversity
Deforestation and water pollution caused by gold mining threatens to reduce biodiversity in sensitive ecosystems. As just one example, diverse plant and animal habitats on the island of New Guinea are under threat from mining, according to the World Wildlife Fund. This large island in the South Pacific covers less than 0.5% of the world’s land but contains at least 5% of the planet’s species, 2/3 of which are unique to the island. Disturbingly, New Guinea is also home to the world’s largest gold mine—the Freeport Grasburg mine, which is situated in the middle of a national park. According to Earthworks, the mine (which also produces copper) dumps about 80 million tons of waste, including arsenic and cadmium, into the Ajkwa river system every year, with devastating consequences for aquatic life.
Small-scale gold mining is often done by children
Children shouldn’t work, and certainly not doing the dirty and often dangerous job of gold mining. But Human Rights Watch has documented instances of child labor in small gold mines around the world. In a report on Ghana last year titled Precious Metal, Cheap Labor, HRW estimated that thousands of Ghanian children work in gold mines, even though it’s against the law. A separate HRW report found that thousands of children in the Philippines, some as young as nine, work in dangerous underwater gold mines. Gold there is often found below the water table, requiring miners to dive into deep, water-filled pits to mine, breathing through tubes connected to air compressors on the surface. These makeshift oxygen systems can fail, with deadly results. In 2014 a 17-year-old died this way. “Sometimes you have to make it up fast, especially if you have no air in your hose,” a 16-year-old miner told HRW, explaining that if miners come up too fast they get the bends. “It’s a normal thing. It’s happened to me,” he said.
When children mine gold they usually miss school or stop attending it altogether. Even worse, they often process the gold using neurotoxic mercury, which puts their still-developing brains at risk for permanent brain damage. Children are able to sell the gold to traders who then sell it to refiners, where it enters the supply chain available to jewelers—who have no idea that their gold was mined by children.
Gold mining is only getting worse
The Earth’s easily accessed gold was already discovered and mined decades or centuries ago. As Earthworks representative Alan Septoff told the Smithsonian Magazine, “What we have left in most mines is very low-quality ore, with a greater ratio of rock to gold.” Which means that ever greater amounts of digging and chemical extraction will be needed to obtain new gold, with the planet paying a steep price.
How to Prevent “Dirty Gold” from Hurting the Planet
On an individual level, you can alleviate the devastating environmental impacts of gold mining by choosing jewelry made with recycled gold. Gold and other precious metals can be recycled repeatedly with no degradation in quality, so they are a naturally renewable resource, and recycled gold jewelry does not cost more than new gold. Of course, vintage gold jewelry is always an earth-friendly option. Choosing either recycled gold or vintage gold jewelry decreases the global demand for newly mined gold. Learn more about the issues surrounding dirty gold mining and about our recycled gold jewelry.
Photo courtesy of Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch