There has been a flurry of items in the news recently about the relative environmental impacts of mined and lab-grown diamonds, with a variety of pieces of information being thrown around, to support the point that the author is trying to make.
However, it is true that there are ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, and you can prove almost anything with the right numbers. If you think about it, any person with 2 feet has slightly more than average. (There are people with one foot, or no feet, which brings the average in at slightly less than the 2 that most of us are blessed with.) We will try to avoid giving dubious comparisons, wherever we can.
We are drawing on the only independent like-for-like comparison that we found between lab-grown and mined diamonds, the Frost and Sullivan Environmental Impact Assessment of 2014. However, there are many ways of mining diamonds – deep pit mining, underground, or under sea mining, alluvial mining, artisan mining, and for lab-grown – HPHT (High Pressure, High Temperature) and CVD (Chemical Vapour Deposition), as well as the IQ Diamond, which is used in most of the diamond jewellery that we sell. Each different type of mining or technology will give different figures, as well as other factors that we will explore below.
It is also the case that producers of mined diamonds in the US, Canada and Australia are almost a different industry than their counterparts in developing nations, where environmental awareness and health and safety are not a feature of the business to nearly the same level.
A further report has been published very recently, by Trucost, commissioned by the Diamond Producers Association. It sets out its case that lab-grown diamonds aren’t as eco-friendly as mined diamonds, by using statistics from the seven DPA Members, which represent 75% of the word’s diamond production, but not many smaller diamond-producing businesses, or the less-ethical ones, for example in Venezuela. This report goes into lengthy detail about the methodology used to calculate the mined diamond statistics, but is very slim on details about how it measured the lab-grown industry, interestingly.
So, let’s look at the areas that are often shouted about.
Where diamond mines use drilling equipment, haulage, pumping, crushing and other processes to end up with a rough diamond, in labs, high energy output is required for both HPHT and CVD processes, over around 4 days (CVD) or 4-6 weeks (HPHT) to create a rough stone.
The Frost and Sullivan report shows an energy usage of around 150 kWh per carat mined (and Trucost says 160), and 70 kWh per carat lab-grown, slightly less than half that, which isn’t that much of a difference, really. Trucost estimates from 511 for lab-grown diamonds, based on aggregated figures, as the manufacturers aren’t keen to reveal their methodology.
Where the energy comes from is also important – burning coal, gas or oil is much less environmentally friendly than using renewable sources such as solar, hydro and wind.
Ethica Diamonds proudly offers only laboratory created diamonds in our fine jewellery. The IQ Diamond, which is CVD over a ceramic core, takes just a handful of hours to create, and with comparatively less energy usage as well, at around one sixteenth as much as the most energy-efficient lab-grown diamonds. This makes our diamonds whiter, brighter, and stronger than the vast majority of diamonds. This energy use still comes in below mined diamonds, even if you use Trucost’s figures.
According to Frost and Sullivan, Carbon emissions, Sulphur oxide emissions and Nitrous oxide emissions occur in much higher levels in the mined diamond industry, at a ratio of 1.5 billion to 1 against the lab-grown diamond makers. Again, some of this is down to the source of the electricity used in the processes, but some is a by-product of the extraction itself, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere. Trucost mentions particulate emissions, but not a comparative figure!
The IQ diamond has no by-product except water, and a much-reduced energy consumption. The ceramic core that is the key difference between the IQ Diamond and a standard CVD diamond is also created in a lab, with minimal by-products.
Extraction of soil
This is an interesting one – if you Google how much soil it takes to find 1 carat of diamond, you get two very different answers appearing almost as frequently. One will tell you 250 tonnes, and the other says 1,750 tonnes. Despite significant research on this, we’ve been unable to find the root data for these figures, but we have come up with some grey areas:
- One source refers to 250 tonnes of ore per carat, where another says 1,750 tonnes of soil – which could potentially both be correct, if it takes 1,500 tonnes of soil and other non-ore-type rock to be extracted alongside the 250 tonnes of ore.
- Also, on most cases it is unclear whether the 1 carat is a cut or uncut stone. As around half the weight of the rough diamond is cut away, that could also help explain why there is such a variance in the figures.
- A further report gives a figure of 250 tonnes, but ten times that to find ‘investment quality’ diamonds. Again, this makes it more likely that 250 tonnes of waste are created for any-old-diamond, that can be used for industrial purposes, but for a jewellery-quality, cut stone of more than one carat, you need to dig through a lot more rubbish.
- One final thing to remember is that mined diamond companies may conveniently forget to include all the test-digging that went on before they started on the actual productive mine that they’re telling you the figures for.
On the lab-grown side, there is not a lot of digging at all, just a small amount, for the foundations of the labs themselves.
While researching this, we came across some beautiful images created by photographer Dillon Marsh in a series called ‘For what it’s worth’. Marsh took photographs of mines of various types in South Africa, and calculated the equivalent amount of diamonds (or copper, gold, etc) that was extracted from the mine. He then photoshopped a globe of equivalent size into the landscape of the mine, which gives a startling set of images of the relative size of the output against the damage of the mine.
You can see the rest of the images, and others for copper, gold, and platinum group metals, at his website.
This comparison exercise is a larger topic than can be handled in one go, so come back next time for a further discussion of this, looking at water, the broader environmental impact, and how the people who work in the mining industry are affected.
Read the next in this blog series on water consumption comparison, environmental damage and how peoples lives are affected when you dig diamonds out of the ground.