Apple seeks sustainable gold for iPhones
Tech giant teams with conservationists, First Nations, family miners to recover precious metal, restore gold rush streams Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – January 8, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 4:58am
Gold has been a symbol of prestige, royalty and wealth since before man first put words to clay tablets. While jewelry, coins and bars of this gleaming precious metal continues its storied history as a symbol of status and prosperity, today gold is also a very important ingredient to the functionality and reliability of most electronics, including the iPhones, iPads, Macs and other high-tech devises coming off the Apple assembly lines.
Wanting to be as highly regarded for its sustainable practices as its avant-garde electronics, Apple is thinking outside of the box to come up with sustainable sources for the aluminum that goes into the lightweight cases of its MacBook Air, the rare earth elements that allow its AirPods to produce high-quality sound and the gold connectors in its iPhones and wide array of other cutting-edge devices.
"As we continue to increase our use of recycled materials, we're seeking out innovative ways to source gold responsibly," said Apple Head of Supplier Responsibility Paula Pyers.
This search led Apple to Salmon Gold, an inspired gold mining initiative spearheaded by a unique environmental conservation group known as Resolve.
The basic premise of Salmon Gold is to go back into areas that were mined before the days of environmental awareness, recover the gold left behind by the old-timers and then recontour the streams and their surroundings to provide better habitat for fish and other wildlife.
Salmon Gold's first projects are found on Alaska and Yukon streams that have been rich sources of gold since the famed Klondike and other gold rushes that lure tens-of-thousands of prospectors and dreamers north.
During those original stampedes and for eight decades to follow, there were no rules on how miners should restore the environment. This left many of the streams wider and shallower than nature intended and without the pools and other habitats fish need to survive and spawn future generations.
Since introducing Salmon Gold in 2017, Resolve has brought together local placer miners, conservationists and the northern aboriginal people together in an unlikely partnership to rehabilitate streams historically mined in Alaska, B.C. and the Yukon.
"Salmon Gold is like a peace treaty between mining and salmon habitat," said Resolve CEO Stephen D'Esposito. "It's a place where the three sectors can work together – the restoration community, First Nations and the mining industry."
Making the gold connection
For Apple, and just about every other company that produces high-tech electronic devices, gold is vital to ensuring quick and reliable relays of electrical signals throughout the micro-circuitry of its smartphones, computers and other products.
Gold is the third best conductor of electricity, behind silver and copper. The quality that really makes gold shine in Apple products, however, is its total resistance to tarnishing. This is important to ensuring the uninterrupted flow of electrical data in smartphones and computers.
According to industry experts, the average smartphone has about one-thousandth-of-an-oz of gold. While this is not a lot of gold, the roughly 160 million iPhones Apple sold in 2019 contains about 160,000 ounces (US$240 billion) of this precious metal. This doesn't count the gold that goes into the technology company's computers, smartwatches and other products.
While Apple has established an enormous recycling program to recover gold and the roughly 60 other metals in its line of high-end electronics, the company is always going to need new gold for its devices.
To obtain this freshly mined gold, Apple has partnered with global luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co. to support family owned mining companies that have committed to restoring and improving the land they're operating on in Alaska, Yukon and British Colombia.
"Partnering with Tiffany, a pioneer in sustainable sourcing, as well as Resolve ensures Salmon Gold can be an example of how the industry can evolve," Pyers said.
Gold medal mining
The first Salmon Gold mining partner was Race Family Mining Operation, an award-winning father and son team of placer (a deposit of sand or gravel with valuable minerals) gold miners in Alaska's Fortymile Mining District. While this eastern Alaska district a few short miles west of Yukon's famous Klondike has been a mining destination for more than 125 years, the gravels in these valleys still have gold to be recovered.
Dean (father) and Chris (son) Chase have demonstrated a penchant for restoring fish and wildlife habitat in the Jack Wade Creek valley where their mining claims are located while also recovering gold missed by the sourdough miners that came before them.
This combination made the father and son mining duo a perfect fit for the Salmon Gold program.
"We saw the pioneering techniques they were using to create better fish habitat. We felt their pride as we walked the stream," said D'Esposito. "It did not take long to realize that Dean and Chris were a perfect match for Salmon Gold. Their land ethic matched ours."
These pioneering techniques also went above and beyond expectations of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency that owns the land where the Race family's Jack Wade Creek mining claims are located.
BLM was so impressed with the restoration work that the Race Family Mining Operation was bestowed the 2019 Hardrock Mineral Small Operator Award, a national honor that recognizes small mining operations that continuously meet or exceed reclamation requirements with minimal oversite.
Matthew Varner, the Alaska fisheries program leader for BLM who nominated the Race family for the small miner reclamation award, said Dean and Chris have pioneered more efficient and effective stream restoration methods that can be adopted by other placer miners across Alaska and the U.S.
Chris, the heavy equipment artisan of the father-son team, says early planning is key to efficient and effective reclamation and stream restoration after mining. This includes setting aside trees for replanting while stripping off the materials above the gold-bearing layers and setting aside large boulders while mining.
This provides the miner with the materials to create stream flows that fish need and an immediate green belt alongside the creek that prevents erosion and fosters the return of wildlife to the area.
This detail-oriented work comes in handy at Jack Wade Creek, a placer gold bearing stream that has a 125-year history of gold mining.
"This area in particular has a rich history of mining and with that a legacy of impacts," Varner said.
These impacts include piles of tailings left in the valley and Jack Wade Creek left too wide and shallow to support good fish habitat.
Today, BLM requires that placer miners recontour the piles of rock and sand left behind after mining, spread topsoil back over the top of these tailings, restore streams with the pools and riffles that fish need for spawning, and replant trees along the stream bank.
Dean and Chris are doing an award-winning job of this reclamation work while recovering gold overlooked and missed by earlier miners.
"All of Jack Wade is full of tailing piles, and Mother Earth will someday eventually recover that, but it's going to take a couple hundred years," said Chris. "All we're doing is speeding up the process ... when I'm done with it, it's going to look like a park."
Expanding Salmon Gold
The Race family is the first of a growing number of miners that are restoring the legendary northern gold rush country to its former splendor while recovering lodes of the precious metal left behind by their pioneering predecessors.
A few miles east of the Race family operation, on the Yukon side of the border, Peter Wright runs a mining site on Sulphur Creek near Dawson City.
"When I first started in the industry, there wasn't a lot of environmental awareness," said Wright, who has been mining in the Klondike Gold Rush area since he was 18. "We're all becoming very aware of what we're doing here and making big changes, like no mercury, no chemicals, trying to reclaim the land as much as possible and help nature reintroduce itself."
Like his neighbors in Alaska, Wright's mining site has been left less than ideal by his predecessors.
"We are at the headwaters of salmon rivers and the Yukon River of course being one of them," Wright said. "Instead of leaving [the pit] wide open, letting all the erosion happen, and letting the streams be plugged with silt which affects the salmon spawning beds ... everything that we do with our reclamation is to help the earth recover. Not only from our mining activities, but from a hundred years before."
To date, Resolve has secured restoration plans with at least three miners in Alaska and the Yukon, with several more under consideration for 2020.
All Salmon Gold entering Apple's supply chain will be traced from the mine to the refiner using blockchain technology.
"The blockchain technology we're using with the project allows us to know exactly where the gold originated from as it works its way into our supply chain," said Pyers.
Salmon Gold's partners will continue fine-tuning the project so that one day it may provide a blueprint for wider scale implementation.
"Our Salmon Gold partnership is an ambitious effort to create the incentives, tools, and techniques to improve streams and habitat across a region that spans more than 2,500 miles, from British Columbia, through the Yukon, to the western edge of Alaska," said D'Esposito.
This includes working with Donlin Gold, a joint venture company preparing to develop the 45-million-ounce Donlin Gold project in Southwest Alaska, as well as Alaska Native corporations and Canada First Nation leaders to identify even larger scale projects
This award-winning initiative is providing Apple with some of the gold it needs while restoring fish habitat to these regions at the northern end of the 19th century's great gold rushes.
"Our collaboration on Salmon Gold proves it is possible to protect our planet, restore ecosystems and fish habitats, and mine gold responsibly," said Pyers.