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Ask EWG: Is there eco-friendly jewelry?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Question: I love jewelry, and have since I was a little girl. I don’t buy it often, and when I do I try to buy pieces that are made to last. I’m trying to be a responsible consumer. What should I keep in mind when making my next purchase?

Answer: Jewelry can be beautiful, but the process used to create it is often environmentally destructive.

Mining for gold, silver and other metals is the United States’ leading source of toxic pollution. That may come as a surprise, but it can take the removal of 280 tons of rock just to produce one ounce of gold. That’s because mining companies often extract vast quantities of dirt and rock and then spray it with cyanide or other chemicals to leach out microscopic amounts of metal. If that sounds bad, the greatest problem comes from digging the hole itself which often exposes sulfur to air and water. The result is a chemical reaction that produces acid runoff that can run out of mines almost literally forever. As it goes, the acid leaches heavy metals out of rock such as lead and arsenic and can pollute water supplies.

Eighty-four percent of gold consumed in the US is used for jewelry (another ten percent goes to dental and other uses, and only six percent is used for electronics). Perhaps the best option, then, would be to choose antique pieces or heirloom jewelry that’s been in your family. Recycled metals require additional energy to produce, but they may still be a better choice than new metal. Some jewelers preferentially use recycled metals. You may hear about so-called “green gold” or responsibly-mined metal. Some of these claims may not be accurate, so check with Earthworks or other mining watchdog organizations before making your purchase. Certified fair-trade jewelry, which would ensure that the human rights of those producing the materials were protected, is not available at this point, but it could be on sale as early as 2009.

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