Why Recycled Gold Is a Scam

    Here’s the truth: recycled gold is not what you think it is. It’s rarely old jewelry being made into new jewelry – more often it's newly mined gold being passed off as ‘recycled’ on a technicality. To get the full truth, we sat down with Sustainability expert and Jewelry Designer, Ana Brazaityte from Truss & Ore to talk all things recycled gold.

    Keep reading for:

    • What is recycled gold - the many definitions

    • Recycled gold vs new gold

    • Is recycled gold greenwashing?

    • The crime side of recycled gold

    • Large scale mining vs artisanal mining

    Hey Ana, can you tell us a little bit about you? Why is this issue important to you and how did you learn so much about it?

    I’ve been making jewelry for 10+ years. I started out in fashion jewelry and quickly shifted over to working with precious metals. One day, at a networking event, I met a sustainability consultant who introduced me to the myriad of ethical issues behind gold and gemstone sourcing.  

    As an artist and jeweler, I was making these beautiful celebratory pieces and for them to be attached to such intense negative issues just didn’t make sense to me. I needed to make art I could feel good about – do no harm (and hopefully do some good).

    I knew I had to do better (and not just for my own sourcing but for the industry as a whole) so I continued digging and learning. About three years ago, I started working with Christina T Miller Sustainable Jewelry Consulting as Education Director and a sustainability consultant for other jewelers. I wanted to share my knowledge and make a bigger impact than I could with just my own sourcing decisions.

    The company consults with small independent jewelers, larger companies, and some NGOs to help address sustainability issues in the jewelry industry.


    This is one of the biggest obstacles with recycled gold – industry groups create the standards that certify something as recycled gold, however each one has a different definition for what constitutes recycled gold.

    One common definition, from the Responsible Jewelry Council, is "gold that has been previously refined". The other most commonly applied definition is “anything that doesn’t come directly from a mine”, which is how the LBMA defines it. These definitions allow for a lot of ambiguity - it could mean gold that was mined last week but stopped at an extra refinery (or sat in a bank) along the way to a jewelry manufacturer.

    ana brazaityte jewelry designer truss and ore

    There is a group called the Precious Metals Impact Forum that has proposed a redefining of recycled gold. They propose the majority of what we call ‘recycled gold’ should be called ‘reprocessed gold’ - because that’s really all that’s happening – they’re just reprocessing the gold for purity (not saving gold from the landfill like most recycling we know of). The only gold they believe should be called recycled is gold that was diverted from the waste stream – electronic waste is a good example of that.

    recycled gold≠ recycling as we know it

    All the recycled gold definitions in the jewelry industry are very different from the commonly understood definition of the word ‘recycled’ – meaning something that is diverted from a waste stream and thereby reduces the demand for newly produced material. No gold (except tiny amounts in electronics, for example) is headed for the waste stream, and demand has not decreased for gold - in fact it's increased substantially.

    It’s strange that this mislabeling remains because FTC guidance specifies that “It is deceptive to represent, directly or by implication, that an item contains recycled content unless it is composed of materials that have been recovered or otherwise diverted from the waste stream, either during the manufacturing process (pre-consumer), or after consumer use (post-consumer).”

    So essentially, if a material wasn’t diverted from a waste stream, it shouldn’t be called recycled. And gold is not generally headed for the waste stream. So, a lot of jewelry industry claims about recycled gold actually don't align with the FTC guidance

    gold rings

    What about some smaller, independent jewelers that are taking old jewelry and melting it down to make new jewelry? Is that better?

    While this still doesn't fit the commonly accepted definition of recycling (it’s still not diverting materials from a waste stream or reducing demand for new gold), it is repurposing post-consumer materials and giving them a new life.                                  

    This practice is often only possible for small, independent jewelers because there isn’t a reliable, continuous source of old jewelry to use on a large scale. It's safe to say that the largest jewelry companies using recycled gold aren’t doing this.

    When I make decisions about my jewelry practices, I start by asking myself three questions - does it do harm? Is it neutral? Or is it positive? To me, reusing old jewelry materials falls in the center – it’s neutral because it doesn’t directly cause more environmental harm with extra mining/refining but it’s also not contributing to social and economic sustainability the way that supporting responsible artisanally mined gold can.

    Is new gold better than recycled gold? Why?

    Newly mined gold is not automatically better or worse than a recycled gold source. It’s about how it was mined, who mined it, and who benefits from it. The first step is knowing the origin of your gold – from there you can determine the environmental practices and working conditions at that mine. Newly mined gold can vary massively, from a few people hand-panning in a river and using almost no energy, to a highly mechanized large-scale operation with a massive environmental footprint.  

    In my personal view, the best thing we can do is to support artisanal mining communities that are mining gold responsibly and continuing to improve their practices. These smaller scale mines usually have a much smaller environmental footprint, but more importantly, it’s a way to work to reverse some of the colonialist impacts of the jewelry industry. Let’s support local people mining responsibly and benefiting from the resources of their own land rather than multinational corporations coming in and extracting all the wealth.

    The environmental footprint of “recycled gold” vs new gold

    Truthfully, there’s no solid answer to that question since recycled gold can mean so many different things. But, just as an example, let’s use the most commonly accepted definition of recycled gold (gold that has been refined more than once) and look at the first few steps of one potential life cycle:  

    1. First, the raw gold is mined

    2. The gold is processed on site

    3. The gold is transported to a refinery

    4. The gold is refined to remove impurities – it’s melted down, treated with chloride, then electric current for further purifying

    5. Gold is sold and transported to a manufacturer. The manufacturer casts some pieces and is left with leftover gold in the casting process.

    6. The leftover “scrap gold” is transported to another refinery

    7. That refinery processes the gold again, it's transported to another manufacturer, and it can now be sold as "recycled gold".

    why recycled gold is a scam

    As you can see, in this example, the 'recycled gold' is being transported and processed twice (both carbon-emission-heavy activities), resulting in extra carbon emissions yet benefiting from the positive associations of the word ‘recycled’.

    Keep in mind, because the origin of recycled gold is generally unknown since it encompasses so many different definitions, this is just one potential path to show that recycled gold does not automatically have a smaller environmental footprint than newly mined gold (and in some cases it has a larger footprint).

    is recycled gold greenwashing?

    To be perfectly clear, the act of using recycled gold is not greenwashing. It’s about how you’re portraying the recycled gold – making claims about positive environmental impacts or reduced carbon footprint. It’s the blanket statements that say “it’s better for the environment to use recycled gold than newly mined” – those are very problematic and full of holes.

    Because just like “recycled gold” could mean anything from repurposing old jewelry to gold that was refined twice in a week, newly mined gold could come from artisanal miners who are hand panning in a river to an extremely large scale mechanized operation. You just can’t group them together.

    If you’re comparing the hand-panned gold to “recycled gold” from a large mine that was refined twice, obviously the newly mined gold is more sustainably produced. If you’re comparing newly mined gold from a large operation vs an independent jeweler melting down and reusing old jewelry, the latter wins. It’s all about knowing the true origin of your gold to determine what the environmental impact is.

    There’s a few large companies out there making big claims that by choosing recycled gold they are helping address climate issues. This is simply not true - they can’t make that claim with certainty because their recycled gold definition allows for newly mined gold (that could have just been refined multiple times).

    To avoid greenwashing when it comes to recycled gold, companies should be very clear about the origin and sourcing of their gold. If you happen to be an independent jeweler who buys broken jewelry and melts it down – amazing, tell that story. If you’re a larger corporation buying ‘recycled gold’ that has simply been refined twice – also tell that story. It’s about transparency and allowing consumers to make informed decisions with all the facts given to them.


    It’s very easy to launder money through gold (recycled or not) and it's often used as currency for drug trade or weapons trade. Because of the way gold is processed, it’s almost impossible to trace it once it’s melted down. Some illegal mining operations forge paperwork and sell to a legitimate trader or they may make large, crude jewelry pieces on the mine site so that they can sell it to refiners who then call it “recycled” because it came from jewelry. That’s one of the toughest things to sift out since it’s so easy to hide – you can’t tell if a bracelet was made 5 years ago and actually worn by someone or just pulled out of the ground and cast into a crude shape to pass off as “recycled gold”.

    What percentage of gold comes from large scale mines vs artisanal mining?

    It’s difficult to know exact percentages because of a large amount of informality in the artisanal mining sector. But about 80-90% of all gold in the market comes from large scale mines and 10-20% comes from artisanal mined sources. Generally, if you don’t know the origin of your gold, it’s most likely from a large-scale mine.

    Large scale gold mine

    Is it possible that large scale jewelers are using true recycled gold (as in post-consumer)?

    In my personal opinion, it would be really difficult to source that large of a scale of only post-consumer gold. At a large scale, most brands would have trouble even getting information from their refiner on what percentage of their “recycled gold” is actually post-consumer (if any).

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