Environmental Concerns for Jewelers

Q: Do we jewelers really need to feel guilty about our environmental effects? I haven’t done the math, but I doubt that a jeweler’s use of fuel gases amounts to as much in a year as an SUV uses in a week.

A: I’ll agree that in the world view, the component of the world’s pollution due to our torches is no doubt such a small fraction as to be difficult to even measure. Mostly, I’d guess the impact of our torches will be on the indoor air quality within our own shops, especially right near our own faces as we solder, and even then, most of the impact is probably due to more toxic stuff released by what we heat, rather than the torches heating it.

Of far greater concern, environmentally, are some of the other things we do, especially as an industry. Precious metals industries often use significant quantities of cyanide, for example. If it’s not properly destroyed, but released into waste waters, this can have a very significant negative impact on the waterways, water sources, and environment in general, in whole regions. Gold and silver mining in particular is a major concern here, since a mine can either be a process of extracting the ore, removing the gold, and putting the waste rock back in the hole and cleaning it all up, on one hand, or can be a process by which a pristine mountainside, or even whole mountain, is reduced to a pile of rubble which will be leaking toxic cyanide solutions into the entire surrounding area and downstream waterways for even hundreds of years. Mines can leach acidic solutions as strong and toxic as battery acid for hundreds of years. This is not a minor drop in the bucket for those areas concerned. Neither is the impact of mercury contamination in those several rather large areas where primitive mercury extraction methods are practiced, often by legions of small mining companies or even individuals.

And for us, the kicker is that we, when we go to buy gold, cannot yet know whether the metal we buy has caused any of these impacts, which we may not hear about much in our nice comfy cities, but which can have devastating impacts on the areas, usually populated by indigenous peoples, where the mining is going on. And it’s not restricted to just the Amazon or remote parts of Indonesia. You can find this stuff right in the U.S.A. in areas in Colorado, Nevada, or other states where gold mining is going on. Yet to date, your gold supplier will have no way to track where their metal came from or how it was mined. But this, unlike the likely negligible impact of our combustion gasses, is something we can, with some time and effort, change.

The jewelry industry worldwide uses the majority of the gold mined. If we, as an industry, start to insist on buying metal that can be tracked back to “green” production methods, we can get this to happen, especially if we’re willing to pay just a little bit more for the metal (putting the waste rock back in the hole, for example, costs money, adding to the production cost of the metal.) This is happening, albeit slowly, in the world of gems and diamonds, where we’re starting to be able to insist on buying diamonds that are conflict free, or in the area of exotic hardwoods, where we can insist on wood that was grown and harvested responsibly, without destroying rainforest habitats, or even to insisting that the coffee we buy is shade-grown and produced responsibly both in terms of the environment and fairness to the workers who produce it. This won’t happen overnight, but if we, as an industry, insist on these changes, it will happen.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.