origen

News

Why is recycled metal not the first choice for responsible jewellery?

Recently, more and more jewellery brands are using recycled metal for sustainability reasons. Yet we prioritise metal sourced from responsible small-scale mining initiatives. Our reasons for making this choice are well-justified.

Plata_1440x640

Using recycled materials is often associated with the environmental commitment of some companies in the sector. This practice is claimed to cause lower greenhouse gas emissions, while reducing the extraction of the planet’s finite resources and being far-removed from issues such as human rights or environmental abuses. [1]

However, when it comes to jewellery, recycling has always been necessary, due to the value of the raw materials used, and as such it is a practice that has very little to commend it. Scraps of gold or silver have never gone to waste, they have been recycled over hundreds of years, simply because they have been too valuable to throw away. Figures show that 5,000 tonnes of silver are recycled every year, and not because of ethical or environmental concerns, but rather because recycling precious metals is also a highly-profitable business, according to Florian Harkort. [2] This same argument also applies to gold.

As jewellery professionals who are seeking to move in a more responsible direction, we admit that we did hesitate when confronted by the choice of buying either recycled, or fairly and sustainably-mined metal. We have outlined some of the arguments that should be taken into consideration in this debate.

The clean origin of any recycled metal cannot be guaranteed, as it is not traceable to extraction, unlike metal from responsible artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) organisations. This means that dirty-mined gold is easy to transform into recycled gold, especially in terms of manufacturing waste. “The main standards adopted by the jewellery industry include fabrication scraps as eligible material into recycled gold. As some fabrications, particularly in the luxury segment, can generate more than 50% scrap, this means that freshly mined gold can be introduced as recycled products just a few weeks after its extraction.” [3] 

It is clear from this text by Patrick Schein that with the current RJC standard it is perfectly feasible to “launder gold” from a country in conflict within a few days and to introduce it without any problems into the CoC chain of custody. Simply by taking to an authorised refiner the brushes and scraps of gold purchased, for example, in Dubai.

Likewise, there is nothing to assure us that the recycled gold being used has not been sourced from that stolen decades ago by the Nazis from the Jewish people, or that plundered centuries ago from the indigenous American peoples by the Spanish colonisers. 

For many experts, not all recycled gold is “good gold”. Some of this gold comes from drug trafficking, organised crime and other illicit money-laundering activities. The London Bullion Market Association has described recycled gold as “a particular money laundering risk because the origin of gold bars and scrap jewelry can be easy to obscure.” [4] Moreover, some of the gold that is labelled as recycled may not actually be so. In 2020 the NGO SwissAid reported that much of the ‘recycled gold’ sold by local refineries was in fact freshly-mined, sometimes by Sudanese militias who had taken part in human rights abuses. [5]

However, using only recycled metal, which was also originally mined under conditions unknown, does not promote more responsible mining practices. Despite the large amount of jewellery in annual demands, both gold and silver are synonymous with formal currency on account of their important role in the financial system, and the role they play in other industries, in which they are ever-more in demand. This fact, considering the global dynamics of demand and consumption, leads us to believe that the use of recycled precious metals in jewellery will not result in any changes being made on the global market, as they will continue to be mined in order to satisfy the high demands of other sectors.

Claiming that recycled gold is better for the environment seems to imply that its use has a direct effect on reducing gold mining activities. However, at present no evidence exists in this respect – there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary -, i.e. that the use of recycled gold no impact on mining at all. It has been estimated that 30-40% of the gold on the world market has always been reused gold. [6] With respect to silver, recycling can only cover 20% of global demands.

“If jewellers do not make the effort to use this gold and simply keep promoting recycled gold as the only ethical solution, then, by not contributing to this ASM sector that needs market incentives to become the norm, I am convinced that the exclusive recycled gold choice will one day come to a dead end for not addressing the situation and just ignoring mining that will not stop.”, stated responsible supplier, refiner and ASM expert, Patrick Schein. [7]

Another fundamental difference with respect to certified fair metal is that no added positive social value comes with recycling. Beyond the topics of fair prices, decent conditions and environmental respect that are all guaranteed with responsible ASM, not to mention the economic activity that is stimulated in these traditionally impoverished regions, furthermore, when ASM is recognised by certification standards such as Fairmined or Fairtrade, the mining bodies themselves receive premiums that are used for community development projects (infrastructure, health, education, etc.). Using responsibly sourced gold and silver has a direct, visible and measurable impact for the benefit of the miner and the well-being of the community. 

When recycling predominates, the lives of millions of miners and their families are affected in a negative sense as recycled gold prices are very similar to, or even lower than conventionally-mined gold prices. The more people choose recycled gold, the more this creates enormous pressure on prices, which results in small-scale miners being paid too little in many places. [8]

This does not mean that recycled gold is a bad option, but rather that there  is still much room for improvement in this field, especially in terms of provenance and transparency, where mandatory requirements must be implemented by means of a highly-reliable certification system. This action should not be a declaration of intent, as is sometimes the case, but an internally-recorded and externally-audited action. The monitoring system applied to recycling still has a long way to go, and it needs to be far more effective than it is at present.

From the concept of responsible jewellery defended by the ORIGEN – Gold for Future Collective, given the real availability of fair and traceable metal, the use of recycled metal is not a valid option in truly responsible and proactive jewellery production practices. If we really want to make a difference, and have a real impact on the mining industry, the only way forward is to support the responsible mining initiatives found in ASM, given their high impact on the creation of decent jobs, community development and on environmental sustainability.

A final note

The term “recycling” as applied to the precious metals used in jewellery is highly confusing, and it is too-often applied to almost any process. Even the processing of production waste is often referred to as recycling. However, in reality, jewellers do not recycle just because the metals they use have not reached the end of their useful life, what we do is to mostly recover. This is the same thing that biscuit manufacturers do, as exemplified by Fairever in an article that is essential reading regarding this question. “The dough is rolled out and cookies are cut out. The remaining dough scraps are kneaded again and rolled out to form new cookies. No one would probably think to call this recycling. This so-called post-industrial waste, is of course reprocessed for pragmatic reasons.” [9]