As the uses for precious metals continue to multiply across sectors and industries, we clearly see the benefits that rare metals like gold, silver, platinum and rhodium offer. Despite the great value of precious metals to many areas of life – and even because of this value – it will serve us as well as future generations to continue developing cleaner, safer and more sustainable practices for mining, extracting and processing precious metals.
Let’s take a look at the range of uses for precious metals and then consider the efforts being made to ensure that the precious metals industry continues to obtain these special materials with a less harmful environmental impact for generations to come.
What’s so special about precious metals?
Precious metals have a long history of use around the world, dating back almost 2500 years. We can trace cultures across the globe using precious metals such as gold and silver for currency as well as jewelry and ritual objects as far back as 600 BC. Today, buyers and collectors carry on this tradition in more modern forms such as proof coins, uncirculated coins, circulating coins and bullion coins minted from highly refined precious metals and alloys. There are also pressed and poured bars as well as ingots of gold, silver, palladium and platinum. And these are just examples of precious metals taking the form of currency and physical assets.
But what makes precious metals so special?
Practical uses for precious metals
Some key characteristics for precious metals include high densities, higher melting points and some softness in texture. They are more lustrous and less chemically reactive.
Given these traits, uses for precious metals extend far beyond currency to other more practical purposes.
- In the mechanical and technological sectors, platinum, palladium and silver are common in the automotive, energy, aerospace and chemical sectors.
- The healthcare industry employs gold and palladium for dentistry and cancer treatments.
- In the jewelry and fine arts market, precious metals go into ceramics, textiles and accessories.
- The automotive industry also uses precious metals, most notably for catalytic converters in vehicles to reduce harmful exhaust emissions.
As metals continue to be mined, processed and purified, industry leaders, scientists, engineers, scholars and professionals continue pushing to reduce the environmental impact of mining and processing precious metals. For example, newly developed AcidLess refining for gold, silver, platinum and iridium resources combines vacuum-like environments with electrical induction crucibles for less harmful by-products.
Concern for the environmental impact extends to the people living and working in mining areas through focus on sustainable sourcing and production practices as well as high standards for ethical business practices and free trade. Given the uses and potential benefits for precious metals, these timely yet effective methods are well worth the time, energy and investment.
Sustainable precious metals sourcing and production practices
Fortunately, a number of eco-friendly processes are available for valuable metals. First, precious metal refining and recycling fosters a more circular economy. This recycling practice uses electrolysis, hydrometallurgy, pyrometallurgy or electrowinning to reclaim precious metals from discarded consumer products such as cell phones and computers.
Electrolysis allows gold, silver, platinum and palladium to be purified and put back into tangible forms like previously mentioned ingots. Hydrometallurgy allows for landfill items to be repurposed for better waste management. Often, valuable metals and raw materials can be found in old household items, outdated electronic devices or unwanted personal possessions for reuse.
Urban mining, rather than virgin mining, addresses the over 40 million tons of annual e-waste. With flash joule heating, substantial quantities of high-quality precious metals can be recovered.Not only is this more effective and less expensive than typical smelting processes, but the remaining byproducts are not as harmful to humans who work at these locations or live nearby. Additionally, the process uses 80 to 500 times less energy than standard smelting.
Furthermore, precious metals have an important part in facilitating sustainable energy practices that are becoming more popularized.
- Solar Energy: Used in the wiring and cell production of solar panels. Research shows that over 23 million homes in America can be powered via solar panels exclusively, with cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Albuquerque blazing the trail.
- Smart Vehicles: Used in the production of electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles. Statistics from the Argonna National Laboratory show a promising change in consumer buying in 2021. For the first time ever, over 75,000 hybrid-electric vehicles were bought in the United States, along with over 33,000 battery electric vehicles and over 12,000 plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles.
- Hydrogen-Based Economy: Used as catalysts in this alternative to fossil fuel economies. The U.S. Energy Information Administration revealed a steep decline in fossil fuel consumption in 2020. Consumption hit the lowest point it has seen in the last 30 years, with a 9% reduction.
Ethical precious metals sourcing and fair trade
Several certifications, pledges, publications, guides, campaigns and organizations support products that use precious metals, such as the jewelry manufacturing industry. Many of them span across the world, incentivizing and encouraging the transformation of the precious metals industry toward a more sustainable model.
- The Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) founded a certification system for international standards around working conditions and community development. Changes have been made in over 15 countries to date. They have also deployed two degrees of certifications, the higher level Fairmined Standard and the more accessible and lenient CRAFT Code.
- Ethical Metalsmiths, established in 2004, centers around the mission of “inspiring responsible jewelry practices through education, connection and action.”
- Jewelers of America releases guides and publications on diamond and gold sourcing for registered members. They have also helped in establishing the Responsible Jewelry Council with two standards to members, the RJC Code of Practices Standard (CoC) and the RJC Chain of Custody Standard (CoC).
- The Ethical Gold Foundation, centered in Albany, CA, does work around the state in San Francisco, Marin County, Alameda, and Berkeley supporting 17 development goals that include aspects like “clean water and sanitation, affordable energy, reduced inequalities, life below water, life on land and sustainable cities.” It is hopeful that it can help environmental deficits of mining while addressing social implications it has on marginalized or vulnerable groups, like children and indigenous populations.
- Earthworks, originated in 1988, prides itself on leading policy campaigns in the United States around oil, gas and resources.
The outlook for a more sustainable precious metals industry
It is encouraging to see such a great deal of self-reflection and analysis going into the precious metals industry around environmental impacts, sustainability, carbon footprints and climate change. Rather than greenwashing or enacting surface level change, deep-rooted and positive changes are underway through better sourcing, production and fair trade practices.
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