Working Towards Sustainability: Silver & Pewter
Amid the recent reports about the climate crisis, it seemed an appropriate time to update you on what Northern Fire is doing to reduce its carbon footprint and general impact on the environment.
In the past, we have written about our environmental aims as a company and even gone into detail about why we have moved to in house screen printing to make our clothing products to be more environmentally friendly in their production. We are always striving to improve in this area to minimise our environmental impact and thanks to a recent customer email about the jewellery we sell, I wanted to explore this a little further and explain why we work with the metals we do, explain their environmental impact and how we are aiming to minimise this.
To start with the most important thing for us is to make sure that all of our jewellery is produced using the highest quality metals and is responsibly sourced.
As you will know already, Silver is a precious metal that has been used since early history in trade or as a recognised currency. As well as the records of coins that have been found there is even evidence found of silver mining in the Asia Minor as far back as around 3000BC. Within the world of jewellery making, you will find that the majority is made with “Sterling Silver”. This is an alloy made from 92 percent silver combined with another metal (usually copper) to increase the hardness of the metal as silver is quite a soft metal in general. This practice appears to date from the mid 12th Century and the first records relating to the purity requirements appear by royal decree in 1275.
Whilst pure silver is quite expensive, the metal itself is not toxic to humans even when ingested or put in the mouth (like with a silver spoon for example). Occasionally, as with most things on earth, there are some individuals who may have a mild allergic reaction to silver powder or when exposed to high levels of silver dust (in a factory for example), there can be some irritation but the vast majority have no problems. Likewise, within the environment, pure silver or silver ores do not cause any real problems. The metal itself is found naturally and doesn’t dissolve so remains within the environment without having an effect. However, it has been reported that some compounds made with silver can cause harm to aquatic life.
The mining of silver, like with any other industrial process does have its negative impacts on the environment. The main issue with this mining is risk of contamination to groundwater in the local area, especially with heavy metals such as mercury which are harmful to humans as well as the life forms who reside in the habitat. The loss of biodiversity and damage to aquatic creatures is a real concern, not to mention the risk of sinkholes and general erosion…
Unfortunately, as silver is relatively cheap to produce, there has been little incentive for many companies to invest in recycling existing silver or work towards a more sustainable mining process.
However, the good news is that silver that has already been mined can be recycled and used again without any loss of purity. This can be done on a small scale for example within the workshop, where we would melt down any projects that don’t meet our quality control standards and try again! The benefit of recycled silver is that it reduces waste in landfill sites (silver is a by product in many household items that are thrown away, including high tech items as it is used in some circuit boards and batteries), reduces the amount of metal that needs to be mined and therefore slows our depleting of the Earth’s resources. Reduced landfill waste and deducted production will also help to reduce the carbon footprint of the metal from transportation and shipping, especially given the 3 largest producers of silver are Mexico, Peru and China.
Recycling can also be done on an industrial scale and although this is usually done within companies who use a large amount of the metal rather than jewellery makers, it is still important to the environmental impact of the metal. The way this is done really varies between companies but as an overview, the pure silver needs to be separated from any other metals it has been combined with and this is often done using acids, heat or applying an electric current. To demonstrate the scale of the problem, the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries estimated that recycling metal can reduce harmful emissions from between 300 to 500 million tons.
As a company, we have worked with a number of artisans for our jewellery so from the beginning, we cannot say how their silver was sourced, however, moving forward, all silver products made will be crafted from recycled silver (Eco Silver).
Pewter is a metal alloy generally comprising of tin, copper and antimony in modern times. In the past, the majority of pewter that was produced using lead however due to the toxicity of the metal, this is generally not the case anymore and all of the jewellery produced within Northern Fire or by our suppliers is 100% lead free.
Why is lead bad?
Although Lead occurs naturally and the is found within the Earth’s crust, the metal is also toxic and due to its widespread use has caused major health problems across the globe. For humans, lead is pretty nasty stuff and can cause a variety of problems to the nervous system, the cardiovascular system as well as the kidneys. It is especially harmful to children because their brains and nervous systems are still developing and although lead poisoning can be treated, the damage is irreversible.
As well as humans, lead can also result in environmental problems either through a reduction in growth in plants or similar or similar neurological problems in animals. Although the majority of lead emissions into the environment are from cars or industrial processes, by avoiding lead based pewter, we are helping to reduce the levels of lead in the environment and especially avoiding more being produced.
Today, as the WHO look to phase out lead, most pewter you will find is a metal alloy consisting of at least 90 percent tin and a mix of other metals like copper, bismuth and antimony which are used as hardeners. This means that modern pewter is safe for eating and drinking from… although I am not sure how you would go about that with out jewellery…
Without the tin, the main difference in the metal is that modern pewter may lose its shine a bit quicker. However, by simply washing the item in warm soapy water, you will restore the shine so it isn’t really much of a problem!
Like with silver, there are problems with the mining of each of the metals which make up the pewter alloy. Indeed, the mining of any metal or natural resource has its own problems, however, as there is still a need and a demand for items made from metal, we have instead looked to reduce, reuse and recycle to keep our impact to a minimum. During our casting process, excess molten metal will often escape which is then filed off once cool and recycled. Likewise, in the development stage as we are perfecting the moulds, any items of jewellery that don't meet quality control and re melted and used again rather than wasted.
I hope you have found this blog interesting and as before, if there is anything you think we are missing or could improve on, we are more than happy to take feedback as we work to reduce our environmental impact.