Earth grown diamonds and lab grown diamonds share the same look and properties, but their origins, and environmental impact, are quite different.
Are lab created diamonds better for the environment? Lab Created diamonds are more environmentally friendly than mined diamonds. Manufacturing requires power, water, and a facility, but mining continues to scar new land, impacting the people and animals in the area for many years. Choosing lab-grown helps to minimize environmental impact, not eliminate it.
Let’s get into a little more detail on some of the important distinctions between earth-mined and lab-created, when it comes to environmental responsibility.
Lab Created Diamonds Aren’t Zero Impact
Lab-grown diamonds obviously do have an environmental impact, because they’re manufactured. They aren’t necessarily earth-friendly, but they are a more earth-friendly alternative than mining. Think about it, manufacturing processes require lots of electricity and water. Earth also has to be disturbed to construct a building and pave roads leading to the property.
Stanford Magazine printed the article of a graduate student who studied and compared Greenhouse Gas emissions from diamond mining and above ground diamond manufacturing facilities. To access the information that he needed, environmental impact reports where carefully studied and dissected. These reports are required places like the US and Canada, but there are many parts of the world where they aren’t filled out and submitted.
Chances are, that the reports that have to measure and disclose information like this, are probably as aware and conscientious as they come. Mines in places that don’t report would likely be much worse.
The Ekati mine in Canada was studied and compared with a lab grown diamond manufacture named Gemesis from Florida. Comparing reports, seemed to indicate that manufacturing the yearly volume of diamonds produced by the Ekati mine alone, instead of mining them, could reduce environmental impact by the equivalent of about 483 million miles of vehicle emissions.
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Mining Impact on the Land
There are several common forms of diamond mining. Open Pit mining is a common form that causes large holes, or pits, to be dug in the earth. The pits often become permanent scars on the landscape and provide serious dangers to local residents. The activity and excavation displaces wildlife and destroys habitat.
Mining activities also can negatively affect the quality of the soil in the area. Deforestation and soil erosion are common aspects of the Open Pit aftermath. These impacts can make once fertile land difficult to farm, displacing the farmers that have sometimes worked the land for generations, and making it harder for the community to provide for its own food needs. Areas could be left completely deserted, in some cases, as residents are forced to go in search of land that can support the rebuilding of their lives.
The Kono District in Eastern Sierra Leone is a diamond-rich region where mining companies have dug thousands of mines, which have been scattered across the area. The resulting effects of deforestation and erosion have severely affected soil quality, destroying farmland and devastating wildlife. As a result of all the environmental consequences of reckless mining in the years leading up to 1991, a mass exodus began to take place. Over the course of the following 20 years, an estimated 4 million people fled the area as environmental refugees.
International demand for diamonds has been growing. India and China, in particular, are starting to purchase more diamonds. Both countries have populations of over a billion people. Both economies have also had a rapidly expanding middle-class, as a result of outsourcing from the West.
In China, there’s a growing trend for women to buy diamond rings for themselves instead of waiting for an engagement ring. These women see it as a statement of achievement and independence. Many Chinese men are also becoming interested in wearing diamonds.
About 150 million carats of diamonds are already being mined each year in order to meet demand. That’s approximately 66,000 pounds (or 33 tons) in total! Once poor nations are getting richer and, with the help of masterful marketing, they’re acquiring a taste for diamonds. If current trends in India and China continue (and it looks like they will), the pace of exploration and land exploitation will have to accelerate, which of course means, that the environmental impact is going to be multiplied.
More consumers are now wanting diamonds, and they’re wanting larger stones. Just 100 years ago, diamonds weren’t as culturally ingrained. They weren’t an expected part of marriage at the time. When diamonds were given, they were relatively small, by today’s standards. The average wedding or engagement ring at that time was about one-third of a carat. Today, on average, they’re roughly 4 times that size.
On average, about 1,750 tons of earth have to be excavated for every 1-carat rough diamond that’s extracted from the earth. That’s a lot of land disruption!
This trend means that the environmental impact has been rapidly expanding for decades in order to keep up with general demand. Massive amounts of earth are being displaced to find the quantity and sizes that consumers are looking for.
Mining Impact on Waters and Wildlife
When diamonds are found in streams and rivers—or when water interferes with mining operations in any other way, those water sources are diverted. Streams can be dammed up or rerouted. That disturbance is enormous on both the wildlife that depends on the water and the farmers, who depend on irrigation for their crops.
When water sources get damned up, fish and other animal life in the area can see serious impacts. It may interrupt reproduction cycles and processes for fish or leave animals without a source of drinking water they depend on to sustain life. Without water, animals may die, or be forced to wander in search of new habitat. Runoff from mining operations can pollute water sources, killing animals or driving them in search of clean water in other areas.
New diamond mines bring roads and workers. Roads destroy natural habitat. Animals are unintentionally struck and killed by cars and new air pollution, noise, and roadside waste are also introduced to areas. Each of those elements has an impact on animal life and can even alter migration routes and patterns. One particular study found that caribou actually diverted more than 6,000 miles off their normal migration routes to avoid diamond mines that sat in their normal path. That kind of disruption of natural travel patterns is more than an inconvenience. It can be devastating to herds. There’s no way to know just how many many other animals breeds have been similarly impacted by habitat destruction caused by diamond mining.
This is exactly what happened in Angola, a country in southwestern Africa. Rivers got diverted by mining operations that were careless regarding the needs of local residents and animals. The impact was absolutely devastating to the area.
Another risk to waterways, vegetation, and wildlife is the acidic runoff that can sometimes be introduced by mining operations. It has an immediate impact on fish, with an expanding ripple effect that goes much further.
Mining Impact on Local Disease
When diamond mines are abandoned, they’re often left as is—just a big pit that water often begins to collect in. Those new pools of stagnant water are ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. Such perfect places to multiply, mosquito populations can climb quickly.
Mosquitoes are more than an occasional annoying buzzing sound in your ear. In many parts of the world, they can carry, and spread, life-threatening diseases. Malaria is one of the common illnesses spread by Mosquito. It’s an intense illness that can kill if left untreated. It’s also an illness that’s recurring, meaning that once you contract Malaria, you’ll have recurring bouts of the illness throughout your life. Dengue Fever, Elephantiasis, and many other diseases are also Mosquito born.
Disease is also impacted by the type of rock that is removed from the mine. Many mines expose the miners to asbestos, which can cause cancer and other serious health issues. As asbestos is brought to the surface and left in piles to clear mine shafts, it can negatively affect the health people in the community. The Asbestos fibers can travel in the air like dust causing numerous lung conditions that can be painful or life-threatening.
Companies that produce and sell diamonds admit that there’s an unfortunate environmental impact, but they claim that those realities have to be weighed against the financial needs of the people that work in these mines, and depend on them to support their families.
In reality, many people do depend on diamond mining to support themselves and their families. They would be directly impacted if all mining were immediately banned. No one wants to see these workers suffer, but we also don’t want to see them exploited. The argument that these companies make is obviously self-serving. The miners scrape out a mere existence in most cases, while the massive companies that own the mines and distribution channels make many millions on the fruits of their labor. In other words, they claim, in a sense, that mining operations have to be kept up for the sake of the poor workers, and then pay them wages that keep them trapped in the backbreaking job while the corporation behind the mine gets richer and richer.
Slave owners in the United States, prior to abolition, sometimes argued for the continuation of slavery on the grounds that the poor slaves wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves. In essence, they were saying, that the practice should be continued for the good of the slaves. They too had a conflict of interest and stood to profit from the continuation of the slavery that argued was for the good of the slaves.
Slavery happens in our day too. While the majority of diamonds are certainly mined by people that are paid to mine them, there are militarized groups that take control of mines, using forced slave labor to harvest the diamonds that are then smuggled into the international diamond supply. These diamonds are known as blood diamonds or conflict diamonds. They represent the vast minority of diamonds in circulation, but they still circumvent the Kimberley Process (the well-intentioned international law aimed at stopping the flow of Conflict Diamonds into our jewelry trade) and end up at your local jewelry store (in the mall or on Main street). The store owner won’t know—you won’t know. They look identical to all the other diamonds.
As you can imagine, the kind of guerrilla organizations that confiscate diamond mines and fill them with slave labor, aren’t careful or concerned with environmental issues. They’ll do whatever brings diamonds to them fastest and requires the least amount of effort.
In addition to forced labor, there’s a wider and more common issue of economic slavery in mining. This happens when the miners really have no other choice. They aren’t paid enough to get ahead. It’s just enough to provide for the barest needs of sustaining life. Many young school-aged children also get trapped in this rut, fighting for survival, instead of getting a basic education.
Miners keep working hard day after back-breaking day—but never get ahead. As long as they’re only paid enough to scrape by, the companies that benefit from their labor will be able to use their economic desperation as an effective means of sidestepping some repercussions of environmental damage. It’s like keeping their miners poor and dependent makes them richer. That’s a broken system that ultimately exploits both the environment and the minors that work for these organizations.
Johnny Cash used to sing about the hard life of miners, trapped in a form of economic slavery. The lyrics to one of his well-known songs says, “You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Sadly, many diamond miners around the world can probably really relate to these lyrics.
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To be fair, some diamond mining organizations are probably more conscientious than others. Some are more careful with the environment, some will be more concerned for the safety and welfare of their employees, however, a massive problem still exists in both areas.
Mining doesn’t have to take a ‘slash and burn’ reckless approach in order to be effective, but precautions that protect the environment take more time and cut into profits. In order to see more environmentally friendly diamond mining practices, mining companies would have to be regulated and policed. That is happening in some countries, and the effort is helping, but many areas rich in diamonds are left without laws or enforcement. These are the areas that see the greatest environmental atrocities.
Even when greater care is taken, it would be incredibly difficult for the ongoing excavation effort to be less harmful to the environment, all things considered, than the process of creating man made diamonds in labs.
The Toyota Prius isn’t a zero-emissions car, but it’s a far cry better than driving an H2 Hummer. The same is true of the environmental impact of lab-grown diamonds. It doesn’t have zero impact on the environment, but it’s a far cry better than the heavy environmental toll that mining continues to take. It’s directly, and continually, impacting species of fish and wildlife, neighboring communities that often have really poor health care options, and a landscape that is left scarred and perhaps permanently changed in many ways.
Can Diamonds Be Recycled?
Diamonds can be recycled, in the sense, that you can purchase a used diamond (or diamond ring) instead of buying a new one if you’d like. You can even have your used diamond re-cut and polished to give it a new look if you want to.
Ring sized diamonds are typically difficult to resell. After a failed proposal attempt, death, or divorce, for example, sellers are almost certain to take a financial loss on the gem. That means that you could help them by purchasing it, while at the same time, saving money. You could end up with a bigger/better ring for your money.
Is Gold Mining Bad for the Environment?
Gold mining is harmful to the environment, in fact, it’s generally much more harmful than diamond mining. In addition to displaced earth and habitat destruction, there are harmful chemicals and elements, like Mercury, that can be left as a toxic legacy of the ore that was extracted from the ground. There are movements to build awareness around this issue and promote Mercury-Free Gold.
How is the Impact of Diamond Mines Tracked and Reported?
Many countries have laws requiring mining companies to take environmental precautions and reclaim mined areas before leaving them, but not all areas enforce their laws. Diamond mining in Canada, for example, is heavily regulated. They’re required to file regular environmental impact reports outlining a variety of important metrics that shine a light on the environmental mindfulness of their operations.
Mining groups in parts of Africa can operate much more privately and recklessly without any kind of regulatory consequence. The inconsistent regulatory environments give careless mining organizations a significant competitive advantage that comes at the expense of the local environment. Only a fraction of all diamond mining companies currently participate in standards like ISO 14001.