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Your Stuff: If It Isn't Grown, It Must Be Mined
Jeremy Faludi, 25 Dec 07
Article Photo

Where does your stuff come from? Before the store, before the factory, where did it really begin? If it isn't made of wood, cloth, or other living matter, it was dug out of the ground.

Number one of The Natural Step's four System Conditions is that "In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust". So ultimately, one day our industrial economy will be made up entirely of recycled and biologically grown material. That day, however, may be a long way off. How do we get there, and what is the world of mining like today? How rapidly are we depleting the minerals we have, and how do we get to sustainable mining?

Current Usage

How much mining is needed to support your life today? Last spring on a road trip, I visited the Robinson mine in eastern Nevada (also called the "Liberty Pit mine"), one of the biggest copper mines in the world. A shadow of its former self, the mine is now mostly piles of tailings (leftover rock and dirt that doesn't contain ore). Climbing up one, I found these piles of tailings are so gigantic that they stretch over an area a mile wide and four miles long. A future civilization stumbling on them might think them earthen-mound architecture like Cahokia. Literature they gave me said that "Every year 40,000 pounds of minerals must be provided for every person in the United States to maintain our standard of living." Online, the USGS (United States Geological Survey) quoted the Mineral Information Institute with these stats:

To maintain our standard of living, each person in the United States requires over 48,000 pounds of minerals each year:

* 12,428 lb. of stone
* 9,632 lb. of sand and gravel
* 940 lb. of cement
* 276 lb. of clays
* 400 lb. of salt
* 302 lb. phosphate rock
* 639 lb. of nonmetals
* 425 lb. of iron ore
* 77 lb. of bauxite (aluminum)
* 17 lb. of copper
* 11 lb. of lead
* 10 lb. of zinc
* 6 lb. of manganese
* .0285 T oz. gold
* 29 lb. of other metals

Plus:

* 7,667 lb. petroleum
* 7,589 lb. coal
* 6,866 natural gas
* 1/3 lb. uranium

Liberty_Pit_from_Google_Maps--sm.jpg
Above, a Google Map image shows the Liberty Pit mine dwarfing the nearby towns of Ruth and Ely.

Note that the numbers above are just the refined final product: they do not include tailings, and the ratio of tailings to ore can be huge. The concept of the "ecological rucksack" measures how many kilos of material must be mined (or grown) to produce one kilo of end-product. According to a report by NOAH, the Danish Friends of the Earth, every 1 kg of gold in your hand carries an invisible history of 540,000 kg of material in its ecological rucksack. A few other notable metals in the report: polyethylene's rucksack is a mere 2.4 kg of "abiotic" material per kg of end material, copper's is 356 kg/kg, stainless steel's is 23 kg/kg, and virgin aluminum's is 66 kg/kg, while recycled aluminum is just 1.2 kg/kg. Good ecological rucksack calculations like those in NOAH's report also include water and air, comprising a somewhat comprehensive measurement of ecological footprint. In addition to the ecological rucksack, there is sometimes a social cost as well. Everyone is familiar with "blood diamonds", but gold is often mined under inequitable circumstances, and back in the 1990's tantalum was often responsible for much bloodshed and endangered species habitat loss in the Congo.

Note also the recurrence of the phrase "maintain our standard of living" in the above quotes. Most people would probably assume that using fewer minerals means lowering our standard of living, but the phrase is carefully neutral -- it is likely possible to do more with less; and if we find organic alternatives to these materials, our standard of living might even improve.

For instance, as Science Daily has pointed out, carbon nanotubes can exhibit "electrical conductivity as high as copper, thermal conductivity as high as diamond, strength 100 times greater than steel at one sixth the weight, and high strain to failure." Although nanotubes are currently very resource-intensive to make, the field is still in its infancy, and carbon is the most common element on earth.

A more immediate example is renewable energy. Over 22,000 lbs of the mining listed above is for energy: oil, gas, and coal. Growing biodiesel from algae to replace petroleum mined from the Earth shows how our standard of living could actually improve with less mining, by having safer vehicle emissions and less CO2 buildup in the atmosphere. Wind power replacing coal shows how our lives could improve while radically reducing mining impacts.

The Mineral Information Institute even has some cute and informative (if dated) posters on mineral use in daily life. Did you know your computer screen uses feldspar and your hair-tie uses clay and phosphorus?

mii_posters.jpg

The USGS has an excellent report, Materials in the Economy—Material Flows, Scarcity, and the Environment, with legions of data. While much of it seems grim, it offers hope as well. For instance, today only about 5% of material used in the US was from renewable sources; but in 1900, 40% was renewable, showing that it is possible and doesn't even require high technology. Much of the non-renewable material we use is invisible to us: "Crushed stone and construction sand and gravel make up as much as three quarters (by weight) of new resources used annually." You probably don't go out and buy gravel yourself; it is mostly used to build and repair the roads you drive on. So if you want to reduce your mining impact, you should drive less. (This will obviously also help reduce your energy mining, which is nearly half your mining impact.)

The report also has some good news about metal: according to it, recycling is already a large source of metals: "Recycling contributed 80.7 million tons of metal, valued at about $17.7 billion, or more than half of metal apparent supply by weight in 2000. ...recycled sources supplied 63 percent of lead; 55 percent of iron and steel; 50 percent of titanium; more than 30 percent of aluminum, copper, and magnesium; and more than 20 percent of chromium, tin, and zinc."

">USGS_material_use.jpg


Peak Minerals

How much mining can the Earth sustain? The answer is not quite zero, as you might think from the Natural Step principle quoted above. Mineral compounds can return to the Earth's crust on their own, slowly. Steel can rust away in a few decades, and aluminum takes between 200 and 500 years to degrade. (Estimates vary widely, but a page by the state of Nevada has a nice and well-illustrated list of how quickly various materials degrade. Compare Aluminum's degradation rate to styrofoam's.) But minerals are clearly a non-renewable resource on the time scale of our lives.

Some researchers have begun to argue that just as we are hitting peak oil, we will soon be hitting peaks for other minerals, and have already passed peaks for some. Italian chemist Ugo Bardi published a research paper on The Oil Drum: Europe in October, whose abstract follows:

We examined the world production of 57 minerals reported in the database of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Of these, we found 11 cases where production has clearly peaked and is now declining. Several more may be peaking or be close to peaking. Fitting the production curve with a logistic function we see that, in most cases, the ultimate amount extrapolated from the fitting corresponds well to the amount obtained summing the cumulative production so far and the reserves estimated by the USGS. These results are a clear indication that the Hubbert model is valid for the worldwide production of minerals and not just for regional cases. It strongly supports the concept that “Peak oil” is just one of several cases of worldwide peaking and decline of a depletable resource. Many more mineral resources may peak worldwide and start their decline in the near future.

The minerals Bardi and co-author Marco Pagani found to be peaking were Mercury, Tellurium, Lead, Cadmium, Potash, Phosphate rock, Thallium Selenium, Zirconium, Rhenium, and Gallium. Note that most of these are key components in computers and other electronics.

How serious is "peak minerals"? In May, NewScientist released a report with excellent charts plotting expected years to depletion for twenty of the most-used minerals, as well as the percent recycled, the amount an average US consumer will use in their life, and a map of the world showing where the various metals are mined.

how_long_last.jpg

where_minerals_are.jpg

According to the report, copper has between 38 and 61 years left before depletion, indium (used in LCD monitors) has between 4 and 13 years, silver (used in catalytic converters and jewelry) has between 9 and 29 years, and antimony (used in flame retardants and some drugs) has between 13 and 30 years. It appears that the market already knows this in a dim way: copper prices have tripled in the past decade, and as the report points out, indium is even worse: "in January 2003 the metal sold for around $60 per kilogram; by August 2006 the price had shot up to over $1000 per kilogram."

As with peak oil, the economics of this situation both help and hurt. They hurt because higher ore prices make it more economically viable to do larger-scale mining at lower rates of return, causing more destruction per unit of product. The economics of scarcity help because mining for virgin materials becomes more expensive, so alternative materials and recycling become more economical by comparison. British geologist Hazel Prichard discovered in 1998 that platinum dust from cars' catalytic converters covers roadsides in the UK in high enough concentrations that sweeping up road dust and extracting the platinum will soon be cheaper than mining and refining the ore. The NewScientist article says she and fellow researcher Lynne Macaskie are "developing a bacterial process that will efficiently extract the platinum from the dust." The report also suggests pulling copper pipes out of buildings and replacing them with plastic, effectively mining buildings.

Bright Green Mining

How sustainable is mining itself? Practices vary wildly, both by country and by industry. A 2006 Geotimes article described the current situation in the US as being a mess, but with several other countries doing well:

The current impasse between environmentalists and industry, however, is unique among advanced nations. The U.S. conflict contrasts especially sharply with policy in Sweden, where a dynamic mining and mineral industry coexists with a strong national environmental commitment in a high-wage, strong economy. The Swedish policy model, as well as Canadian and Finnish models, may not be applicable to current U.S. sociopolitical conditions, but they offer important perspectives on potential ways to break out of the current standoff.

Pressure is being put on mining companies, thanks to organizations like Environmental Working Group. EWG offers a Google Maps mashup of the Western US that maps literally hundreds of thousands of mines and mining claims; existing mines can even be viewed in Google Earth on its 3D terrain. They point out that there are "815 mining claims within 5 miles of Grand Canyon National Park". And the Grand Canyon is hardly unique--Arches, Dinosaur, Capitol Reef, Death Valley, and many other parks are in areas where mining is the backbone of the local economy.

Though most mining is currently a toxic catastrophe, there are signs it's already getting cleaner. In 2000, the US EPA's Toxics Release Inventory listed metal mining as being responsible for a whopping 47% of all toxic waste released by industry in the country; their 2005 report listed metal mining at just 27%. And it's not due to other industries dumping more; 2000 releases were a nationwide total of of 7.1 billion pounds, while 2005's total was 4.34 billion pounds, over 30% less. A significant amount of this savings is no doubt due to offshoring environmental burdens to mines and manufacturing facilities in poorer countries, but a significant amount of it is due to better practices.

Recycling is growing. The Encyclopedia of Earth wrote in November that "1 metric ton (t) of electronic scrap from personal computers (PC’s) contains more gold than that recovered from 17 t of gold ore. In 1998, the amount of gold recovered from electronic scrap in the United States was equivalent to that recovered from more than 2 million metric tons (Mt) of gold ore and waste." Furthermore, they have an inspiring story:

In the mid-1980s, on of the world’s largest mining companies, Noranda, Inc. of Canada, investigated ways to make their smelters more profitable. Feasibility studies and testing determined that “mining” computer and other electronic scrap would bring a welcome supplement of copper and precious metals to their smelters. Noranda’s findings indicated that the concentration and other electronic scrap may be more than twice that found in ores. So in 1984, Noranda began processing small amounts of scrap and, by 1999, was the largest electronics recycling plant in North America, receiving more than 50,000 t/yr of electronic scrap from 300 to 400 suppliers in 18 countries. Recyclable materials are considered to be an important feed for Noranda’s smelters, as essential as ore concentrates are to the operation’s profitability.

Several organizations are dedicated to more sustainable mining. Good Practice is an informational website "jointly developed by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the United Nations Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the UK Department for International Development (DfID) to provide access to a library of good practice guidelines, standards, case studies, legislation and other relevant material that are leading examples of their kind globally." The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) is, as they say on their website, "a multi-sector effort, launched in Vancouver, Canada, in June 2006, to develop and establish a voluntary system to independently verify compliance with environmental, human rights and social standards for mining operations." Participants in IRMA include Wal-Mart, World Wildlife Fund, DeBeers Group, Oxfam America, and Tiffany & Co. (thanks to Bernard Vatant for the tip.) An older organization focusing solely on gold is the No Dirty Gold campaign, and a primarily South American consortium is the Association for Responsible Mining. The list goes on.

The strategies for sustainable material use are the classics: reduce, reuse, recycle -- on a massive industrial scale. The USGS report mentioned before recommends the classic three R's, as well as remanufacturing (a mixture of reuse and recycling) and landfill mining. Landfills will soon have higher concentrations of useful ores than virgin ground; for some elements, as mentioned above, they already do. Perhaps landfill could also be used in lieu of gravel for road beds and foundations, since that is such a huge proportion of non-renewable material use. It would certainly require some kind of quality control and manipulation to avoid settling, provide drainage, and avoid toxic leaching, but might kill two birds with one stone--avoiding mining and avoiding landfill. We must also look to grow alternatives to many of the materials we now mine. This is where McDonough & Braungart's concepts of "technical nutrients" and "biological nutrients" come into sharp focus. Technical nutrients are things which at some point needed to be mined, but in the long run must be used in a closed loop, not confounding themselves with biological nutrients (because separate they are useful, but conjoined they are garbage). Biological nutrients are those that can be farmed or otherwise grown, but these also need to not exceed the available land's carrying capacity, so even if we could replace all minerals in industry with functional equivalents grown from organic matter, it still might not be the wisest course of action. The wisest course is to close the resource loops, and keep them easily separable, so all ingredients can retain their value. Both sustainable harvests and closed-loop recycling constitute "renewable materials".

Recall that in 1900, 40% of US materials used were renewable; now the standard of living is much higher, but renewable materials have fallen to 5%. In many poor rural parts of India and Africa today, the vast majority of materials used are renewable and local, but the standards of living are low, and much of the younger generation leaves for cities when given the opportunity. We must find a way to make the best of both worlds, bringing the ratio of renewable materials up to 100% worldwide, with a quality of life even higher than today's.

Image credits: photo by author, Google Maps, Mineral Information Institute, USGS, NewScientist

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Comments

In the long term, wouldn't asteroid mining provide a workable alternative to earth mining while allowing us to use some unrenewable resources for the next millennium or so?


Posted by: Philip Welch on 25 Dec 07

If, as some in the peak oil/global warming community predict, there is pending a significant drop off in population, there will be more than enough "stuff" to go around. But however the future plays out, recycling is the essence of the cycle of life and should be celebrated and honored as a fundamental virtue. Thanks for your thoughtful contribution.
LLPete


Posted by: Leon L. Peterson on 26 Dec 07

On the Marketwatch Morning Report (NPR) today they were speaking about the China Price effect — when China gets involved, the prices of consumer goods go down, but the prices of the raw materials goes up. The excellent research in this article points out why, beyond the simple supply and demand curve. As prices for raw materials continue to climb, we'll all suffer, but of course it will be the less developed nations — who want to build new roads and cell towers, for instance — who are hurt the most. Mineral wealth might be one of the hot-button issues of the 21st century. It would be nice if we could get governments to nudge things along with a timely virgin materials tax.


Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 26 Dec 07

My own thinking suggests that we are even closer to the "tipping point" wherein end-to-end recycling may offer resources at costs equivalent to raw material production and transportation costs. Some proof is descovered in the "numbers" of some researchers who see the percentages of recycling of many valuable ores and minerals as indicative of calculations made by producers that recycling materials offer equivalent or even lower costs than buying and transporting raw materials from origin sources like existing mines. Demand exceeds amounts currently produced from recycling.
To be successful, however, it must truly be a production recycling process wherein all of the material is recycled to it's "highest value reuse."
Therefore recycling plastic into road materials is not a highest value reuse, but plastics into plastics may be.
Research beyond what is available today is required to process a diversified stream of raw materials, organic and inorganic, into a finished series of highest value materials for reuse in the manufacturing of everything from foodstuffs to materials for furniture, toys and building materials.
This new "alchemy" of recycling will slow, not eliminate, the process or sourcing, mining, processing and transporting materials, because populations and standards of living are constantly growing, even accelerating in much of the world.
Fortunately (unfortunately) most of the world's easily discovered and processed raw materials, including energy sources, are in play. However, 80% plus of the earth's mineral, and energy, resources remain yet to be discovered.
These are high(er) cost sources to be sure, but their cost is a component of what drives the tipping point calculations of recycling from end-to-end.
Eventually, earth's population will (hopefully)stabilize; living standards will be mostly "balanced," and recycling will generate most of the materials needed for the production of goods and services.


Posted by: Barry Dennis on 26 Dec 07

My own thinking suggests that we are even closer to the "tipping point" wherein end-to-end recycling may offer resources at costs equivalent to raw material production and transportation costs. Some proof is descovered in the "numbers" of some researchers who see the percentages of recycling of many valuable ores and minerals as indicative of calculations made by producers that recycling materials offer equivalent or even lower costs than buying and transporting raw materials from origin sources like existing mines. Demand exceeds amounts currently produced from recycling.
To be successful, however, it must truly be a production recycling process wherein all of the material is recycled to it's "highest value reuse."
Therefore recycling plastic into road materials is not a highest value reuse, but plastics into plastics may be.
Research beyond what is available today is required to process a diversified stream of raw materials, organic and inorganic, into a finished series of highest value materials for reuse in the manufacturing of everything from foodstuffs to materials for furniture, toys and building materials.
This new "alchemy" of recycling will slow, not eliminate, the process or sourcing, mining, processing and transporting materials, because populations and standards of living are constantly growing, even accelerating in much of the world.
Fortunately (unfortunately) most of the world's easily discovered and processed raw materials, including energy sources, are in play. However, 80% plus of the earth's mineral, and energy, resources remain yet to be discovered.
These are high(er) cost sources to be sure, but their cost is a component of what drives the tipping point calculations of recycling from end-to-end.
Eventually, earth's population will (hopefully)stabilize; living standards will be mostly "balanced," and recycling will generate most of the materials needed for the production of goods and services.


Posted by: Barry Dennis on 26 Dec 07

Jeremy: Another great write!! The mining in Nevada has always bothered me as I drive annually to Salt Lake City. The only good thing about it is that it's better than importing minerals from 1000's of miles away. I thought a few time of getting a job with Newmont Mining, and learn first hand what really happens behind the curtain. I80 between Reno and Salt Lake is rolling with sorted eco- disasters: from shutting down mining leach pond pumps which contaminate water shed in Idaho + Utah, to construction of new coal + geothermal power plants, etc.; each of them has their own story potential. For some reason this part of the country along with Wyoming and a few other ‘energy + mineral closets’ in the USA West is under the radar and off the environmental reporting agenda. Thanks for shedding more light on it - GREAT WORK!


Posted by: Fred Klammt on 27 Dec 07

Very nice article -- reminds me of an encyclopedia entry! It should be in wikipedia, or maybe there should be a worldchanging encyclopedia with more entries like this. This was something Bucky Fuller also did in his World Game, later taken up by the World Resources Institute.
http://www.wri.org/project/material-flows
For strategies on lightening up production see our courses on innovation and LCA, as well as Thackara's _In The Bubble_

Curt
http://online.mcad.edu


Posted by: Curt McNamara on 28 Dec 07

On a different note, I found this article http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=3225220 listing the greenest cities in the US. This shows that municipalities care about climate change. I guess the general population cares about the environment and global warming. My score on their calculator was 400 but at least I am trying. Here is the link to the website that published the list of cites and where the carbon calculator can be found: www.earthlab.com. The test took me like 5 minutes tops, and then maybe another 2 minutes to find the pledges I wanted. Pretty cool application.


Posted by: Stuart on 28 Dec 07

People lived 100 years ago without oil, electrisity, or many of the things we have today. They lived realitivly decent lives. Maybe the way forward is found by looking back.


Posted by: Frank Mancuso on 1 Jan 08

This is excellent thinking (and data), both appalling and somehow hopeful (we used to use more renewable components, for example, and we're already recycling a significant proportion of metals).

We've recently been thinking about the "re-" issue (recycling, refilling, refurbishing, remanufacturing) a bit for some of our clients that make and sell CPG or consumer electronics of various kinds, and it's clear that one of the challenges is the local infrastructure issues. The need to establish local services and facilities for pickup, sorting, and shipping could make it all both economically and environmentally impractical. Depending on consumers mailing things back seems spotty, at best, and might often involve another transcontinental shipping cycle. So a very half-baked thought is ... what if local and regional authorities expanded the “recycling center” concept to include industrial real estate and/or rentable manufacturing space adjacent to the dropoff location for recycled materials, and then helped work out arrangements with that would encourage product companies to set up “re-” facilities and share the cost of staff, trucks, and routes to pickup products and re-(fill, furbish, manufacture, etc.)

Is something like this happening already, somewhere?


Posted by: John Reaves on 9 Jan 08



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