Below is an excerpt from Jeremy Faludi’s “Your Stuff: If It Isn’t Grown, It Must Be Mined” (25 Dec 2007).
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.
Ultimately, one day our industrial economy will be made up entirely of recycled and biologically grown material. How rapidly are we depleting the minerals we have, and how do we get to sustainable mining?
Note that the numbers in the link above 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: copper 356 kg/kg, stainless steel 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.
The Mineral Information Institute even has some cute and informative (if dated) posters on mineral use in daily life.
The USGS has an excellent report, Materials in the Economy—Material Flows, Scarcity, and the Environment, with legions of data. 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.
How much mining can the Earth sustain? 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.
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.
Most mining is currently a toxic catastrophe…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 (but less in 2005 because mines have been “offshored” to poorer countries, as well as some better practices).