In addition to water, human existence is dependent on nutrients. Food is important to us, and various cultures and customs have developed around food. But in order to survive, people also need other things. We learned quite early to turn rock into tools for hunting and farming. To get shelter from the elements, we learned to build dwellings by utilizing natural resources from the bedrock and soil. Learning to process metals started the development path towards the industrial revolution. In fact, our development phases are linked to minerals and their exploitation. We are constantly learning. Mineral resources have had – and will have – a significant role in the development of society far into the future, at least until we find a way to replace geological raw materials with something else.
From mining and recycling to the store shelf
We all use tons of geological raw materials every year – and the demand for them will continuously grow with urbanization and rising living standards. Without these raw materials, society would come to a halt. There would be no construction, traffic wouldn't flow, we wouldn't be using computers or cell phones, there wouldn't be sufficient food production, and we wouldn't even be using knives and forks with our dinner plates. It's smart to recycle and recover, but these two actions alone are not enough to meet our demand for raw materials. Urbanization, the rising standard of living in developing countries, environmental technologies, etc. require an increasing amount of minerals to be excavated.
Metal and rock do not grow, but they are durable, recyclable and long-lasting. Steel and copper, the cornerstones of modern society, are used in buildings, bridges, machines, electrical wires and cables that last for generations; this is why they are not recycled quickly. Consequently, more and more steel (nickel and iron) and copper are needed. On the other hand, the life cycle in the electronics industry is shorter, lasting just a few years. Metals are obtained only by excavating mines, creating the need to find new ore deposits as the old ones are depleted. Prospecting for ore is done in order to find new deposits.
Considering the enormous investments and efforts needed to find and utilize minerals, it is clear that the recyclability of excavated materials must be further developed. Metals will not be depleted from the earth, but they will have to be prospected from locations and depths that are increasingly difficult. And the lack of acceptance of mining operations can also hamper their prospecting and exploitation.
Geological raw materials have formed over thousands of millions years ago. Recycling extends the lifetime of excavated materials and also shows respect to the natural resources and the work of the geologists who prospect for them in difficult conditions: the individuals prospecting and locating them so that they can be mined for the "store shelf" for all of us to use.
Written by Toni Eerola, Senior Specialist, Geological survey of Finland (GTK)