To recycle or not to recycle that is the question.

The gap between fact and emotion is huge in the jewellery trade. It is one of the characteristics of our industry that in many respects remains un-reconciled. There is no doubt in my mind that the rise in recent years of the ethical and fair trade jewellery debate has been largely due to the emotional and moral disconnect between source and finished product.

When it comes to filling this apparent void, there has been a rush of well-intentioned ideas and the use of recycled metals is very close to the top of many jewellers lists of actions that can be taken. In fact there are now a number of jewellery brands as well as metal trade suppliers claiming a strong responsible ethical message around the phrase ‘100% recycled’

From the outset I wish to be clear that I believe using 100% recycled metals in jewellery is a definite ethical improvement. Yet I am also of the opinion that it is has a limited impact on ethical performance within the jewellery and broader metal trade.

The process for scrapping gold and silver is well known within the industry, no jeweller worth their salt throws away scrap, they recycled the value through the refiner or bullion house. In many cases however once that metal is scrapped it is then blended with fresh sources of metals so what comes to market as new metal can often be a mixture of recycled and new metal.

Silver as a case study.

As the GFMS table below demonstrates, silver coming to market does so through a number of sources, primary mining and as the principle by-product of gold, copper, lead and zinc mining. In fact only 28% of silver that hit the world market in 2008 was from primary silver mines. The rest (72%) came through the secondary channels.

Silver Output by Source Metal

(millions of ounces)
2007 output % of total 2008 output % of total % change
Primary 194.1 29% 191.2 28% -1%
Gold 60.7 9% 76.7 11% 3%
Lead/Zinc 234.9 35% 249.9 37% 6%
Copper 171.3 26% 159.6 23% -7%
Other 3.3 0% 3.6 2% 9%
Total 664.2 680.9 4%

Source: GFMS

As the following statement from the Birmingham Assay Office shows:

‘Silver volumes exceeded gold by nearly 600,000 articles in the period, representing an unprecedented 58% of articles hallmarked in the UK. Considering that silver items weighing less than 7.78 grams do not need hallmarking, the true amount of silver introduced to the market is well in excess of this and the trend looks likely to continue’.

This recent increase in silver jewellery is being supplied not only from then recycled source but also from the secondary sources of silver like, gold, lead and copper mining. In essence what I am saying is that the demand for new metal coming into the supply chain, outstrips the amount of silver being sold back in to the system through recycling.

This is also born out from figures in the UK industry for 2008 gold consumption. The UK consumed 36 tonnes of gold of which 10 tonnes was recycled or scrap. Again the demand outstripped the recycling inputs.

Of course there are many reasons why this is, given that many people rightly point out that there is enough metal above ground to cover off the total jewellery demand. I offer these few observations as why recycling will only ever be part of a more comprehensive approach to supply chain ethics.

1)     People do not treat jewellery like tin cans. For many people they don’t recycle/scrap as their jewellery is sentimental or treated as investment. To scrap jewellery is in many respects selling your future or your history, only something you do when you are extremely desperate.

2)     The way the financial markets are set up to speculate on the price of gold and other metals, going up or down means there is always investment money made on trades that act like a vacuum cleaner sucking all they can into the economy. This means new metal is always required. 2008 saw around 2600 tonnes of gold mined in one year.

3)     Given that the greatest number of people employed in mining are small-scale miners driven to work in very marginal circumstances because of poverty, gold is cash in the ground that feed families and pay rents.

I have always found fascinating to note that large-scale mining employs the fewest amount of people and drives over 80% of the value, whilst small-scale mining employs the majority yet is left with the crumbs from the table. The Old Testament prophets and the odd rock star would have a comment or two to make about this imbalance on the scales of justice.

In conclusion

These simple facts alone have a huge influence on how far recycled metals can and will impact the overall ethical position of a piece of jewellery. Recycling certainly has value, it does not take any fresh metal from the ground, but it also does not challenge the overall economic structure that creates such a voracious appetite for new gold and has absolutely no impact on the poverty issues that drive people to small-scale mining.

In today’s current ethical landscape I believe the strongest ethical stance that a jeweller or a brand can adopt is to use Fairtrade independently certified sources wherever possible and in the absence of a source that meets that criteria to adopt recycling as a practice. In short;

Recycling = good standard practice

Fairtrade supplemented with a recycled product = current best practice

Companies that supply recycled and/or certified fair trade metals to the UK market.

Hoover & Strong – Recycled Metals

CRED Sources – Fairtrade Gold

Cooksons Precious Metals – Recycled Silver and Gold


The Birmingham Assay Office UK hallmarking figures Jan to March 2010

The Silver Institute. World Silver Survey 2009 A Summary.