The extractive industry of mining is one of the most sustainable industries in existence. Unlike “renewable” agriculture and logging, metals once mined remain in human use forever as they are recycled again and again to be made available to all future generations. For example it is estimated that nearly all of the gold ever mined throughout human history is still in use. What isn't in use has been lost in shipwrecks and the like.

Available for the needs of future generations!

It is far less costly to society to recycle metal than explore for and mine it. This has always been the case; even ancient documents like the bible speak of recycling swords into plowshares. For as long as it has been in use (roughly 5,000 years) copper and copper alloys have been recycled. This has been a normal economic practice, even if regretted by some. One of the wonders of the old world, the Colossus of Rhodes, a statue spanning the entrance to Rhodes Harbour, was said to have been made of copper. No trace of it remains since it was recycled to make items that were clearly deemed more valuable. References  to  the  production  and  recycling  of  metal  have  been  discovered  on  claytablets in Mesopotamia as well as on inscriptions in Egypt and on temples, graves and obelisks. An Assyrian cuneiform tablet has been found which mentions an order from the monarch to collect a certain quantity of old metal.

But as the population grows, so does the need for metals. Over 50% of the copper produced today goes to developing nations that are currently building the infrastructure that developed nations already enjoy. Developed nations are less focused on infrastructure growth and much of what they consume is recycled from older infrastructure. Today the entire economy of the copper and copper alloy industry is dependent on the economic recycling of any surplus products. Nearly half of the worlds copper comes from recycled scrap, 50% of which (25% of the world total) comes from the US. It is similar for steel; about 60% of US steel usage comes from recycled scrap. In Mexico, a growing country, a lower portion comes from recycling and the world’s copper mines are needed to make up the difference. Mexico currently imports about 30% of its steel, most of that from the US.


We buy your scrap!

Electric cars have 3 times more copper than gas-driven cars!

Electric cars have 3 times more copper than gas-driven cars!

One of things forgotten when considering the implementation of energy sources and vehicles considered sustainable are the metals required to be mined in order to make them. For example a single 3 MW wind turbine needs 335 tonnes of steel, 4.7 tonnes of copper, 1,200 tons of concrete (cement from limestone quarries and gravel from aggregate quarries), 3 tons of aluminum, 2 tons of rare earth elements for the magnets (mined in China), Aluminum, Zinc, Molybdenum and Gold (for wiring contacts). As for electric cars, well they mean more mining too. According to Ernst and Young each hybrid car contains roughly 34 kg of copper versus 19 kg in the average fuel burning car. The average electric car has 3 times the copper that a gas-driven car has. A recent analysis had this to say about the raw materials required for offshore wind turbines:

"It has been estimated that to create 48 kWh per day of offshore wind per person in the UK would require 60 million tons of concrete and steel – one ton per person. Annual world steel production is about 1200 million tons, which is 0.2 tons per person in the world. During the second world war, American shipyards built 2751 Liberty ships, each containing 7000 tons of steel – that’s a total of 19 million tons of steel, or 0.1 tons per American. So the building of 60 million tons of wind turbines is not off the scale of achievability; but don’t kid yourself into thinking that it’s easy. Making this many windmills is as big a feat as building the Liberty ships."

David MacKay


In 1987 a new political term was coined, sustainable development, which is defined as follows:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This definition is attributed to Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, a medical doctor and the former Prime Minister of Norway who, at the bequest of the then Secretary General of the United Nations, established and chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development. Her Committee produced a report entitled Our Common Future in which the definition first appeared.

Defining sustainable

Defining sustainable

Anything we utilize has either been grown or mined. The most useful, sturdy and long lasting of things, such as concrete, steel and copper wire, are made from material that is mined. Metals are not naturally occurring in forms that are readily useful. The cost and effort to extract and refine elements such as iron and copper are so high that metal has always been recycled which is possible because the properties of metals are not lessened by nature over time, unlike wood and other “farmed” substances. The bible speaks of turning swords into plowshares and that is what even industrial societies do today. For example roughly 50% of all copper “consumed” in the United   States is recycled. As for steel, it is estimated that in the US, 90% of steel used in manufacturing is recycled after an average life for each product of 22 years. There are no government mandates that force this on people, it is simply just good sense on account of the fact that it is cheaper to melt a metal item and remake something new with it than to search for a new copper mine, develop it, dig out the copper, refine it and then make the new item. In this very real sense mining is infinitely sustainable; the needs of future generations will be met over and over again by the metal that past generations have found, extracted and refined. Before the metal was found, extracted and mined it was useless to humankind and there was nothing to even evaluate as sustainable. The fact that the metal has been removed from the ground and no longer exists in that place is not a sign of non-sustainability; rather it has created a permanent and unending supply of copper that will be recycled and reused ad infinitum. Legislating sustainability is another attempt to replace the collective decisions of many with the coercive will, however we of the few. In an open society, with increasing scarcity of a given resource, its price tends to rise, encouraging economizing on behalf of those who consume the resource.

 The obvious question here is to whom should we look to determine what present needs are and how can we know what future generation's needs may be so that we can ensure we do not compromise them. What seems to be implicit here is that these same needs and abilities must be determined by those in government who, in order to ensure that society is sustainable, need to force us to act according to their assessment of what future generations’ needs may be. Somehow metal mining seems to be one of those activities generally regarded as unsustainable. Why?