Global Mineral Reserves: Sustainability, Economic Implications, and Environmental Effects

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  • 0:02 Mineral Reserves
  • 1:08 Economic Role of Minerals
  • 2:50 Environmental Effects
  • 4:02 Sustainable Mining
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Minerals are vital components of our everyday lives, but each mineral only exists in a finite amount on Earth. How do we find a balance between supporting economies while also protecting the environment and ensuring the use of minerals for future generations?

Mineral Reserves

Our daily lives are highly dependent on minerals, which include metals like gold and silver, but also diamonds and other gems, coal, and even oil. But while these resources are important to us, like most other things on Earth, there's only a limited amount available for our use.

Something you may hear people talk about is mineral reserves. These are the mineral resources that are economically reasonable to extract from the ground. It's not possible to extract all of a mineral from the earth because eventually it becomes too expensive and difficult to extract. The reserves are what we extract up to this point.

When this happens, we will likely look for an alternative mineral to replace it, but this is not really a reasonable solution because these alternatives will eventually run out as well, and then we're back to the same problem we started with. Instead, we need to consider sustainable ways to extract and use minerals. This includes thinking about both the economic and environmental effects of mining our reserves, and how we can make changes that help conserve mineral resources for the long haul.

Economic Role of Minerals

Our global mineral reserves are directly tied to local, national, and global economies. It's difficult to fully grasp just how many minerals you utilize in just one day. For example, when you drive your car, you might think of the gasoline you use to power it, but the vehicle itself is made of more than a ton of iron and steel, 240 pounds of aluminum, 50 pounds of carbon, 42 pounds of copper, and upwards of 30 other minerals, such as zinc, gold, and platinum.

Your house is also another major player in mineral use. The copper wires and pipes, stainless steel faucets, drywall, and paint are just a scant few examples of minerals that make up the place you call home. Do you play sports? A baseball bat, bicycle, and even the playing surfaces of tennis courts are made of minerals. Agricultural fertilizers that grow the food you eat also come from minerals - things like phosphate and potash.

As you can see, if we are no longer able to extract and use these minerals, it could have serious economic implications because it would affect manufacturing, production, and general living. Many jobs would be lost, and both national and international trade would suffer.

But our demand for and dependence on minerals continues to grow through an expanding human population, as well as things like medical and technological advances. Because of this, efforts are in place to lead to a better understanding of global mineral reserves and their uses, including an increase in funding for scientific research and inclusion of more scientific data and analyses.

Environmental Effects

We certainly can't talk about mineral reserves without discussing the environment. Mining itself is very physically destructive to the earth, and it also creates a lot of pollution and waste. Extracting mineral reserves produces air pollution, affects water quality through chemical runoff, contributes to acid rain, and mines themselves can leak heavy metals that are toxic to us and other organisms.

As we work our way through our global mineral reserves, it takes a greater amount of energy to extract the minerals. Water is also used in a variety of ways in mining operations, often by diverting surface water and pumping groundwater. This can reduce water quality and quantity, which affects not only local aquatic ecosystems, but also those downstream as well.

While the amount of land affected by mines is small when compared to the total amount of land on Earth, the land disruption they cause is quite substantial. In order to mine, the vegetation must be cleared, buildings, roads, and power lines need to be constructed, and of course, pits and tunnels are created to access the mineral itself. And, unfortunately, once the mine has served its purpose, the land can't really be used for anything else.

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