Scrapping Mining Dependence
If an accountant were to weigh the costs and benefits of extracting minerals from the Earth and then processing and refining them, the balance sheet would reveal this: an industry that consumes close to 10 percent of world energy, spews almost half of all toxic emissions in some countries, and threatens nearly 40 percent of the world's undeveloped tracts of forest. Mining is also the world's most deadly occupation: on average, 40 mine workers are killed on the job each day and many more are injured.
Today, minerals are extracted and consumed in enormous quantities: in 1999, some 9.6 billion tons of marketable minerals were dug out of the Earth, nearly twice as much as in 1970. The amount of wastes generated in order to extract these minerals is even more imposing. On average, producing a single gold ring, for example, generates about 3 tons of wastes at a minesite.
Fortunately, the world doesn't need to obtain minerals in a way that uses so much energy and generates so much pollution. Through improved design of cities, transport, homes, and products, societies can find ways to use the existing stock of minerals far more efficiently-and to use smaller amounts of materials overall-dramatically reducing the need to mine underground ores.
Metals, for instance, are eminently recyclable. Used copper or aluminum can be transformed back into the same amount of metal with very little additional supplement of new metal. It takes 95 percent less energy to produce aluminum from recycled materials than from bauxite ore. Recycling copper takes between five and seven times less energy than processing ore, while recycled steel uses two to three-and-a-half times less. Modern products ranging from computers to cars can_ and are_ being designed to be disassembled for repair, reuse, and ultimately, recycling.
Recycling's potential is poorly realized, however, mainly because of government policies that heavily favor extraction. Had the 7 million tons of cans thrown away by Americans between 1990 and 2000 been recycled, they would have yielded enough aluminum to make 316,000 Boeing 737 planes--which is about 25 times the size of the world's entire commercial air fleet. Another untapped lode of metal is the above-ground stock of gold. Currently, three times more gold sits in bank vaults, in jewelry boxes, and with private investors, than is identified in underground reserves.
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