Nickel is a widely used alloy in the jewelry industry as an additive to make a variation of white gold. We sometimes refer to this type of white gold as "nickel-white", however, it is the standard in the US and when talking about white gold. Everling, as a company that strives to maintain a very high standard of ethical sourcing and sustainability, we have chosen to refrain from working with nickel-white gold. Not only is nickel, and it's processing, toxic to the environment, it is also toxic to work with, making it a health concern for jewelers. And lastly, when a client says they have a metal allergy, the most common culprit is nickel. For all these reasons, we use a white gold alloy that is palladium based instead of nickel based, which you can read about on our Sustainability page.
Luckily, our clients Ali and Kyle share our concerns about the impacts that nickel mining, and its processing, have on the environment. As an expert, Kyle offered to write a blog pertaining to this issue in an effort to spread awareness. Thanks, Kyle! We truly appreciate your contribution.
About the writer:
Kyle Vickstrom is an environmental engineer focused on the remediation of hazardous wastes in soils, sediments, groundwater, and surface water. He has expertise in abandoned mine cleanups, industrial contamination in river waters and sediments, and complex groundwater sites. He earned his Masters degree from Oregon State University and works for the environmental firm CDM Smith on remediation projects in the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains, and Midwest.
Environmental Impacts of Nickel Mining and Processing
by Kyle Vickstrom
In the jewelry industry, nickel is used primarily for plating and alloying with gold and silver, and represents a small percentage of its global consumption. However, it is used extensively in numerous other applications such as stainless-steel and nickel hydride batteries in hybrid and electric vehicles, and has become a ubiquitous material in modern society (1). There are many environmental issues associated with nickel including greenhouse gas emissions, habitat destruction, and contamination of air, water, and soil.
Nickel deposits are typically found in low-grade ores (~1-2% nickel) thus making it highly energy intensive to extract and refine the metal. This leads to high emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the use of large amounts of energy derived predominantly from fossil fuels (2). In a recent analysis, nickel was ranked as the 7th most damaging metal to human health and ecosystems with the 9th highest global warming potential, based on production levels from 2008 (3). In 2008, global nickel production was 1.57 million metric tons and has since grown to an estimated 2.1 million metric tons in 2017 (4, 5). This trend is expected to continue as global demand for nickel increases.
Indonesia, the Philippines, New Caledonia, Canada, Australia, and Russia are the largest producers of nickel, the majority of which is exported to other countries such as the United States and Japan (4, 6). The tropical nickel producing regions of the world are global biodiversity hotspots, and the destruction of native vegetation and contamination of large swaths of land from mine wastes has garnered international attention. In Indonesia, there is competition between the interests of nickel mining and its tropical rainforests, leading to a loss in biodiversity as global demand outweighs environmental concerns (7). In New Caledonia, an increase in nickel mining has led to habitat reduction and fragmentation causing serious risks to native species and an overall loss of biodiversity (8–10).
In 2017, Philippines Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez ordered the closure of 23 mines and suspended operations at another five mines, mainly nickel producing mines, to fight environmental degradation from the industry. The move was supported and upheld by President Rodrigo Duterte, and was described by Secretary Lopez as a social justice issue (11). Unfortunately, environmental contamination from nickel mining is not uncommon, and has been documented in Canada (12), northwest Russia and Finland (13–15), and Cuba (16), amongst other places. The most common issues of environmental contamination are emissions of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere, acid mine drainage (17) and heavy metals contamination in soil and water.
The use of recycled metals does reduce the overall impact of mining and processing nickel, but increasing global demand will continue to drive land use changes that benefit the mining industry. After the closure of mines in the Philippines, its nickel production dropped from 347,000 metric tons in 2016 to an estimated 230,000 metric tons in 2017; however, during that same period Indonesia’s production doubled from 199,000 to 400,000 metric tons (4). It is difficult to address problems such as this on a global scale and exact any tangible changes. However, change can be made on a personal level. As with all limited resources, it is best to reduce consumption first, reuse materials whenever possible, and recycle when the first two options are no longer possible.
- Nickel Institute, First and End Uses of Nickel. Nickel Inst., (available at https://www.nickelinstitute.org/NickelUseInSociety/AboutNickel/FirstAndEndUsesofNickel.aspx).
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