Happy Earth Day! For 41 years, Earth Day has inspired individuals to renew their commitment to environmental protection. It also gives us at Brilliant Earth a chance to discuss one of our favorite topics: eco-friendly jewelry.
We’ll start off by noting that many jewelry shoppers know something about the problem of conflict diamonds—for instance, that diamonds have fueled some of the deadliest civil wars in history. Less well known is that some jewelry industry practices are extremely damaging to the environment. It seems counter intuitive, but in an effort to create something beautiful, the jewelry industry is poisoning water, harming people and wildlife, and ravaging landscapes.
Many jewelry industry practices are harmful to the environment, but there’s one activity tied to jewelry-making that has particularly severe environmental consequences—and that’s gold mining. As much as 80 percent of all newly-mined gold is used to make jewelry.
Most gold today is mined industrially, by mining companies. Although gold mining has never been good for the environment, modern industrial gold mining techniques are especially dirty. It was once common for mining companies to dig underground tunnels to reach high concentrations of gold. Now, in a process known as open pit mining, gold mining companies usually just come to a site and start digging. Huge amounts of earth and rock are excavated, creating giant open pits. Cyanide, a highly toxic compound, is then used to separate the gold from the unwanted rock and ore.
Consider the following:
- The gold mining industry discards at least 20 tons of rock and ore for every gold ring that is produced.
- When cyanide escapes from the mine site, it can wreak environmental havoc. In 2000, a cyanide spill at a gold mine in Romania contaminated the drinking water of 2.5 million people.
- Open pit mines so alter the landscape that they are visible from space. The above photo of Indonesia’s Grasberg mine was taken by a NASA astronaut in 2005. The Grasberg mine, the largest gold mine in the world, has a diameter measuring 1 mile.
In addition to industrial gold mining, some gold is mined by artisanal or small-scale gold miners—people using simple tools and methods to mine for gold, such as panning in riverbeds or digging makeshift shafts. Artisanal gold miners typically use mercury, another toxic substance, to separate out gold from rock and sediments.
Consider the following:
- About 95 percent of all mercury used in artisanal gold mining is released into the environment.
- Artisanal gold mining accounts for 30 to 40 percent of man-made mercury pollution each year. It is the second leading cause of mercury pollution, after coal-fired power plants.
- Once mercury enters a body of water, it persists for years. Fish in San Francisco Bay still have elevated levels of mercury as a result of the California gold rush of the 19th century.
What can be done? By choosing either recycled gold or antique jewelry, both of which we offer, consumers can reduce the need for gold mining and pressure gold mining companies to improve their practices. And by choosing fair trade gold, also offered by Brilliant Earth, consumers can encourage artisanal gold miners to use more eco-friendly techniques. Also, tell a friend about dirty gold mining and the ways to avoid it! If people shift their buying patterns, real change can happen. Earth Day, or any day, it’s time we put a stop to dirty gold mining.