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Are Minerals a Renewable Resource?

An open pit mine in South Dakota
An open pit mine in South Dakota

With the continued industrialization of countries around the world, we’re consuming more mineral resources with every passing year. As we become increasingly reliant on these minerals it’s worth knowing whether or not these resources are renewable, so I did some research on the topic.

Minerals are not a renewable resource. There are only finite amounts of each mineral, and since they are not naturally replenished or created fast enough to keep up with human consumption they are considered to be a non-renewable resource. However, most minerals can be recycled and re-used.

Minerals vary wildly in both their availability and their uses. Some are easily recyclable and can be reused almost endlessly, while some can only be consumed once. Understanding how these resources are used is key to our responsible management of these minerals.

What is a Renewable Resource?

A renewable resource is any natural resource that can naturally be replenished over a human time scale. They are virtually inexhaustible because of the speed and scale at which they are produced.

Examples of renewable resources include solar energy, wood, wind power, and geothermal energy. All of these resources are relatively quickly produced in such vast quantities that it is inconceivable that humans could ever exhaust them.

Let’s use wood as our primary example. The world consumes vast quantities of wood every year, and while the rate of growth is slowing we consume more and more of it every year. So why haven’t we run out of it? Well, forests grow naturally and humans plant millions of trees each year. One a global scale, the amount of wood that grows on those trees (coupled with recycling efforts) is more than enough to keep pace with human consumption.

Minerals do not fit the definition of a renewable resource because there is only so much of each of them, and more are not being made. If we extract all of the gold in the world out of the ground, more won’t be produced to be harvested next year. There are no natural processes that create minerals that quickly enough to even come close to keeping pace with the rate humans use them.

Don’t New Minerals Form Every Day?

Some people might argue that minerals are indeed a renewable resource because minerals are still forming every day through natural geologic processes. While this is true, it ignores the need for renewable resources to be produced quickly.

When we as a society exploit mineral resources it is on a massive scale. This is necessary to produce as many supplies and products that we demand on a global level. So, for example, when we strip mine for bauxite to help in the manufacturing of aluminum we are extracting an enormous amount of material from the earth.

The time it takes to extract these mineral resources is minuscule compared to the time it took to create them. The geologic processes that are responsible for the formation of virtually any type of significant mineral deposits take millions of years. However, once humans discover and decide to exploit those mineral deposits it is usually only a matter of several years before they are completely exhausted.

This gets down to the issue of a ‘human time scale’. A human life (and really the entire existence of humanity) is a blink of an eye on a geologic time scale. We can consume an enormous amount of resources compared to the length of our life spans.

To maintain our standard of living, each person in the United States requires over 38,449 pounds of minerals each year.

What Minerals Can Be Reused?

Thankfully, many of the mineral resources that we use every day can be recycled and reused. This reduces the need for additional industrial mining and cuts down on the amount of waste we produce as a society.

Pure metals such as gold, copper, iron, silver, nickel, manganese, chromium, and aluminum are great examples of recyclable minerals. They can be reused indefinitely without any loss in quality or integrity. As long as they are recycled there is no need to replace them with additional mining.

Many minerals used in building and construction can also be reused. Gypsum, for example, is used to make drywall and can be used many times for similar purposes. The same can be said for various types of clays that go into bricks and the various minerals that are used to create concrete.

While these types of minerals can be reused, there is often a practical limit to how many times that will be done. For example, once they are reduced to concrete it becomes impractical to separate them for reuse of that concrete is ever torn up.

What Minerals Can’t Be Reused?

Unfortunately for us, some minerals cannot be reused indefinitely. These are mainly minerals that are used for their chemical properties (as opposed to their physical ones).

Minerals used for their energy in nuclear power plants are not recyclable. These minerals include plutonium, uranium, and thorium. Once the energy from these minerals is depleted they are no longer useful for that process and have to be disposed of. This process is often expensive and environmentally risky.

While not technically ‘minerals’ in the geologic sense, petroleum products are often referred to as mineral resources. Oil, coal, and natural gas are definitely non-renewable and are not reusable. Once they are consumed and their energy is expended they cannot be used again. It takes millions of years to naturally produce more, so we only have a finite amount to work with.

Will We Eventually Run Out?

We’ve established that minerals are a finite, non-renewable resource. There won’t be any more of them being made – ever. At least on a time scale that we humans care about. So does that mean that we are doomed to run out of them at some point?

The good news is that we probably don’t have to worry about running out of minerals any time soon. The minerals that we use every day are generally so common that it is unlikely that we’ll ever run out of them, especially if they are responsibly managed and recycled.

However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to worry about specific mineral shortages. Some minerals are only produced on an industrial level in certain places. If the countries that own those deposits decide to stop exporting them to the rest of the world could feel the pinch.

One of the best documented cases of this happening was in 2010 when China cut their exports of rare earth minerals. At the time, they were responsible for the vast majority of the worlds supply of these minerals which are used in batteries and other technological applications. Prices shot through the roof, and other countries subsequently began to develop their own rare earth mineral mining endeavors.

It is also possible that it is no longer economically viable to continue to mine for some minerals. But the good news there is that that means the demand is no longer there to necessitate their extraction. We can usually find alternatives to using certain minerals if they become depleted or too expensive.

Extraterrestrial Minerals

It seems like something out of science fiction, but it’s not so far fetched. While the amount of any single type of mineral available to us here on Earth is finite, there may be more of it to be harvested from other planets, asteroids, or comets.

Platinum in particular is probably the most promising target for this type of endeavor. It is exceptionally rare and useful on Earth, but it is possible that there are asteroids that contain large quantities of it. The technology is still a long way off, but it’s not hard to imagine a time in the not-so-distant future where companies or countries are harvesting asteroids for economic gain.

As human civilization continues to expand on Earth (and beyond) it is likely that we will be able to add the combined mineral resources of other planets and asteroids to our list of useable mineral deposits.