Tailings are the main wastes produced by gold mining and contain large quantities of heavy metals (HM). These metals seep uncontrollably into surrounding environments when exposed to water or dispersed by wind. While the list of retailers aligned in their opposition to dirty gold continues to grow, most gold is still quite dirty. Most of the world's gold is extracted from open pit mines, where huge volumes of land are extracted and processed for trace elements.
Earthworks estimates that, to produce enough raw gold to make a single ring, 20 tons of rock and soil are extracted and discarded. Much of this waste contains mercury and cyanide, which are used to extract gold from rock. The resulting erosion clogs streams and rivers and can eventually contaminate marine ecosystems deep below the mine. Exposing the depths of the earth to air and water also causes chemical reactions that produce sulfuric acid, which can seep into drainage systems.
Air quality is also compromised by gold mining, which releases hundreds of tons of elemental mercury into the air every year. Modern industrial gold mining practices, such as well extraction and cyanide heap leaching, generate approximately 20 tons of toxic waste for each gold wedding ring. The waste, usually gray mud, is loaded with deadly cyanide and toxic heavy metals. The commitment was launched in 2004 by the environmental group Earthworks, which called on retail companies not to transport gold produced through mining practices that are destructive to the environment and society.