Is Buying Gold Environmentally Friendly?

If you’re concerned about the environment, you might start questioning the environmental friendliness of all your purchasing decisions. The nature of your products matters—for example, buying lots of disposable plastic goods results in more waste—but you also have to consider the methods used to procure, create, and/or transport those products.

For example, gold isn’t inherently harmful to the environment the way plastics or fossil fuels are. In fact, it’s often found in its natural state and is used in such small quantities it couldn’t have much of an impact globally. But what about the methods used to mine and distribute gold? Are there negative consequences in the gold industry?

The Effects of Mining

Let’s start by looking at the effects of gold mining on the environment. Gold can be obtained through many different methods, including panning, hard rock mining, and byproduct mining.

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In panning, a pan is used in a river to sift through various rocks and minerals. Because of the density of gold, it’s easy to separate it out from other materials. This is a common practice by amateurs and individuals, since it’s fairly approachable, and has little impact on the environment. However, large-scale practices designed to extract gold from rivers and streams can interfere with sediment that contains toxins like mercury. When dredging rivers to mine large deposits, these toxins can get into the water and start affecting the entire food web.

Most mining practices rely on the movement and/or destruction of environmental elements, like rocks and soil. On a large enough scale, the removal of these features could interfere with local wildlife populations, again disrupting the ecosystem. When mining, professionals are also responsible for handling contaminated tailings (i.e., waste ore), which needs to be stored behind a dam. If these contaminated materials are accidentally released or inappropriately placed, it could lead to catastrophic damage to the surroundings.

Then, we have to consider the amount of fossil fuels burned by the heavy equipment needed for large-scale mining operations, the processing equipment needed to refine the ore, and the logistics necessary for transporting the gold from place to place.

Is Buying Gold Problematic?

With those considerations in mind, is buying gold problematic?

Not necessarily. Gold is procured in different ways by different companies, and you can do your research to determine whether you’re buying from a source that’s operating responsibly. On top of that, most consumer products—like gold grillz or jewelry—don’t rely on massive quantities of gold, nor is the average consumer purchasing items like these on a regular basis. Purchasing an ounce or two of gold is going to have far less of an impact on the environment than, say, driving your car an hour a day, every day, or using paper for your business when you could be operating completely digitally.

Gold mining is also less environmentally disruptive than other mining and obtainment processes. For example, mining coal requires the demolition of vast areas of land, and demand for coal is much higher, so it results in a bigger net impact.

You should also consider the fact that gold mining is highly regulated in most areas. Miners are prohibited from contaminating any water sources with problematic substances or byproducts from the mining process, so as long as they follow best practices, their impact will be minimal.

Sustainable Gold Mining

There’s also hope that someday soon, we may have more sustainable gold mining processes. No mining process can be completely sustainable; all forms of mining require taking finite materials from the Earth, and there’s no feasible way to replace what we take. However, the amount of gold still available in the world is plentiful, and miners are constantly getting better at obtaining it efficiently—while minimizing disruptions to the environment. It may be decades before we completely refine the process, but we’re already making progress.

The bottom line here is that buying gold isn’t directly environmentally destructive, though there are some problems with the way we mine gold. As usual, the best thing you can do is improve your awareness, and educate yourself about where your materials are coming from so you can make more educated decisions about your total environmental impact.

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