It’s likely that you’re reading this on a computer, a phone or some sort of device that’s loaded with copper. From the lights in your home, the pipes under your sink to the renewable energy we so badly need, all of it relies on copper that comes from copper mines.
Try to go a day without using anything that has copper in it.
It’s really hard.
For those of us who oppose copper-sulfide mining in Minnesota, it can be especially troubling to think about how much copper is in our lives. This leads to a question:
Is it hypocritical to oppose copper mining yet still be utterly reliant on copper?
Copper mining and Minnesota
We hear this argument quite a bit from those who support mining. Copper is part of our lives, so much so that according to the U.S. Geological Survey, every American born in 2008 will use 1,309 pounds of copper during their lifetime. That’s a lot.
Though we may consume a huge amount of copper, we are not running out of copper. The world has decades worth of copper that has been dug up, refined and is currently on reserve. There may not be an urgent need to open a new mine, anywhere, let alone one that would pollute Minnesota’s pristine waters for hundreds of years.
New frontiers of copper mining
As of 2016, The Copper Alliance, an organization of the copper mining industry, estimated that with the current rate of demand, the world has a 37-year reserve — or about 740 million tons — of deposits that have been “discovered, evaluated and assessed to be economically profitable.” However, these reserves are still in the ground and need to be extracted before they can be used.
This vast reserve is not the only place where we can get copper.
Because policies and technologies for copper recycling has improved, The Copper Alliance notes that “during the last decade more than 30 percent of annual copper use came from recycled sources.”
So can we get all our copper from recycling?
It’s estimated that over the course of human history, 1.2 billion tons of copper have been mined. As we previously mentioned, the modern world needs copper. However, our phones, hot water heaters, cars and refrigerators don’t last forever. Eventually they break down and contain plenty of perfectly reusable copper. Copper is 100 percent recyclable, in fact, two-thirds of the copper mined since 1900 is still in use.
Considering how much copper in circulation and can be recycled, The Copper Alliance notes, “This enormous stock of copper, contained in its diverse range of end uses, and equivalent to around nearly 30 years of mine production, is often referred to as society’s ‘urban mine.'”
This suggests that there is a reserve of copper in the urban mine nearly as large as the natural reserve of copper in the earth.
The advent of “urban mining”
A recent study has shown that so-called “urban mining,” the extraction of metals such as copper and gold from e-waste is not only an effective way to manage these growing waste streams, but is more cost effective than virgin mining.
That is, it’s cheaper to extract copper from the televisions people throw away, than to open a mine and extract it from the earth.
Think of it this way: The concentration of copper in the area where Twin Metals wants to mine averages, at best, .66 percent copper. That means it would take about 151 pounds of rock to produce one pound of copper.
The average refrigerator has about five pounds of copper in it and weighs about 300 pounds. There are other appliances that have an even greater copper to weight ratio. Not to mention the copper has already been processed, separated from other impurities and minerals.
The point is it’s a lot easier — and cheaper — to get the copper from an old appliance than from the earth. And the data is now backing this up. From an economic stance, it may very well be cheaper — 13 times cheaper — to mine e-waste than open up a new copper mine.
We need copper but not more copper mines
This brings us back to the original question: Is it hypocritical to depend on copper but oppose copper mining in northeastern Minnesota?
There are alternatives. There are other ways to get copper than through hard-rock mining.
Cheaper, more robust recycling and e-recycling programs could ultimately supply us with the majority of copper we need.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post mistakingly stated, “If all copper mining stopped around the world, if every smelter and backhoe stopped working, we would not run out of copper until the 2050’s.” This error was based on a misunderstanding of the industry term “reserve.” The mistake has been corrected and we apologize for mischaracterizing this important detail.