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Quantifying the impacts of primary metal resource use in life cycle assessment based on recent mining data


  • Swart, Pilar
  • Dewulf, Jo


The quantification of impacts in the abiotic resource category in life cycle assessment is still controversial. However, this is a pertinent issue because of the growing dependence of our industrial society on these resources, particularly on metal resources. One of the important shortcomings of the existing assessment methods used today is that characterization factors are not based on actual mining practice data. In this paper, a new characterization factor derived from recent (1998–2010) and representative (more than 50% coverage of global primary metal production) mining data was established for nine metals: copper, zinc, lead, nickel, molybdenum, gold, silver, platinum and palladium. The quantification of this new characterization factor is based on the annual increase in mass of ore required per unit mass of metal in the ore. This quantification relies on the concept that the mining of resources is threatened not by lack of ores but by changing ore characteristics, e.g., the percentage of metal in the ore, mineral type and location. The characterization factors determined in this study ranged from below 0.1kgorekg−1y−1 for zinc to more than 15,000kgorekg−1y−1 for gold. These results indicate that in 1999, 370,000kg of ore was required per kg of gold in the ore, whereas in 2008, 530,000kg of ore was required per kg of gold in the ore (an increase of approximately 4% per annum). When comparing these results with traditional life cycle impact assessment methods, it was found that in all but one method gold, palladium and platinum have the highest characterization factors among the nine metals. In all methods based on ore grade changes lead and zinc are the metals with the lowest characterization factors. However, an important difference in the proposed method is that it assigns higher relative values to precious metals. This suggests that the supply of precious metals may be under more pressure than indicated by other methods, which in the framework of the proposed method implies greater efforts in mining and mineral processing. There is still scope for improvement of the proposed method if more data become readily available.

Suggested Citation

  • Swart, Pilar & Dewulf, Jo, 2013. "Quantifying the impacts of primary metal resource use in life cycle assessment based on recent mining data," Resources, Conservation & Recycling, Elsevier, vol. 73(C), pages 180-187.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:recore:v:73:y:2013:i:c:p:180-187
    DOI: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2013.02.007

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Mudd, Gavin M., 2007. "Global trends in gold mining: Towards quantifying environmental and resource sustainability," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 32(1-2), pages 42-56.
    2. Svedberg, Peter & Tilton, John E., 2006. "The real, real price of nonrenewable resources: copper 1870-2000," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 34(3), pages 501-519, March.
    3. Steen, Bengt & Borg, Gunnar, 2002. "An estimation of the cost of sustainable production of metal concentrates from the earth's crust," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 42(3), pages 401-413, September.
    4. Mudd, Gavin M., 2010. "The Environmental sustainability of mining in Australia: key mega-trends and looming constraints," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 35(2), pages 98-115, June.
    5. Crowson, Phillip, 2003. "Mine size and the structure of costs," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 29(1-2), pages 15-36.
    6. Crowson, Phillip, 2012. "Some observations on copper yields and ore grades," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 37(1), pages 59-72.
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    2. Northey, S. & Mohr, S. & Mudd, G.M. & Weng, Z. & Giurco, D., 2014. "Modelling future copper ore grade decline based on a detailed assessment of copper resources and mining," Resources, Conservation & Recycling, Elsevier, vol. 83(C), pages 190-201.
    3. Hatayama, Hiroki & Daigo, Ichiro & Tahara, Kiyotaka, 2014. "Tracking effective measures for closed-loop recycling of automobile steel in China," Resources, Conservation & Recycling, Elsevier, vol. 87(C), pages 65-71.

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