Recently, the United Future World Currency project (UFWC) unveiled a new pattern coin made entirely from recycled materials. This silver coin is the size of a standard silver bullion coin, but it is made with reclaimed silver. According to the UFWC press release, there were only 200 produced in 2011 & they were released January 29th, 2011 at the World Money Fair in Berlin.
The silver eco coin was struck by the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales. It has a fineness of 95.8%, weighs 32.45 grams, and is 40 mm in diameter (the same as the “Britannia” bullion silver coin). All 200 coins were produced in proof condition.
On the obverse, the UFWC coin shows an arboreal pattern that the artist calls the Tree of Life. The tree has 5 leaves, each “representing one of the five inhabited continents” (presumably, North and South America are considered a single continent). The legend on the coin reads “United Future World Currency” and is written around the obverse along with 5 five-sided stars from 5:00 to 7:00. The engraver of the Tree of Life design is Laura Cretara, and her initials appear below and to the right of the Tree of Life.
The reverse shows a stylized number 2 (that appears in 5 layers) set inside a matte ring. The legend in the outer ring reads “Unity In Diversity * Test * Limited Issue LL” and has 5 five-sided stars. Offset from the center of the ring are 4 arrows forming a circular recycling symbol. The artist who designed this side of the coin is Luc Luycx, and LL is presumably his initials. The silver was provided by Cookson Precious Metals UK.
The UFWC organization raises some interesting points about the sustainability of our hobby. Worldwide, mines produce 17,000 to 20,000 metric tons of silver annually. These mines extract millions of tons of other material to get at that silver – even the richest veins of ore have only 44 ppm of silver. That means every ton of silver that’s dug up also churns up more than 23,000 tons of other material. Often, the ‘waste’ material includes other ores (such as copper and gold ore) but a large portion of the waste is toxic heavy metals (such as arsenic, lead, and mercury).
There are plans to reduce the environmental impact of mines (including mining high-concentration underwater volcanic vents), but the future will likely bring more pollution per unit of output simply because most of the richest ore veins have already been tapped. Instead of mining in new and environmentally sensitive areas or digging ever-deeper and more dangerous mines, perhaps we should consider using more recycled metals. Not only does reclamation reduce the impact of mining, but it also solves waste disposal problems.
Recycling scrap metal also saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas pollution. For example, making something with recycled aluminum uses about 92 percent less energy than using virgin aluminum ore. The energy savings for other common coin metals are considerable: we could save 90% on copper & 56% with steel. Energy savings like that add up, from 20 to 30 lbs of CO2 saved per ounce of metal used.
Stockholder reports for mining companies indicate that smelting silver ore cost approximately $0.40 an ounce in 2010. I used the price of coal and natural gas to compute a rough estimate of energy use and emissions. For 2010, natural gas cost ~$4.50 per MBtu and coal cost ~$1.50 per MBtu. Assuming that energy accounts for 90% of the smelting cost, and that the average energy cost from a mix of fuel sources was approximately $2/MMBtu, then that means each ounce of silver requires about 0.18 MBtu to smelt.
Here’s my formula:
1 MMBtu * $/MMBtu = 90% x $0.40/ounce
So, how much is 0.18 MBtu? That’s equivalent to 180 cubic feet of natural gas. It’s enough energy to boil one thousand 16 ounce pint glass of water from a starting temperature just above freezing. That’s 52.75 kW of power: or about as much power as the average American house consumes every 2 days, just to smelt and refine 1 ounce of silver.
Emissions vary from 117 to 227 lbs of Co2 per MMBtu (with natural gas at the low end, and anthracite coal at the high end). For ease of use, let’s consider the nice round number of 200 lbs of CO2 per MBtu. Straight multiplication gives us a usable figure: 0.18 MBtu x 200 lbs of Co2 = 36 lbs of carbon dioxide per ounce of silver coined. To put that in perspective, that’s about as much air pollution as driving a car for 50 miles.
In 2010, the US mint produced more than 34,000,000 American Silver Eagle bullion coins. In order to mine each of those 1 ounce silver rounds, approximately 5 tons of ore were dug up. If my calculations are accurate, refining and smelting the ore would take more than 6,000,000 MBtu of energy and produce more than 600,000 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s just for a single type of commemorative coin produced in a single year!
Switching to reclaimed metals would cut those numbers significantly, and that would also result in some cost savings that could even trickle down to consumers. One can only imagine the savings available in switching to recycled zinc, copper, and nickel in US circulating coins. Well, I could probably sit down and approximate those numbers, but I’ve had enough math for one day.
In February, additional coins will be available for purchase at FutureWorldCurrency.com. These will likely include non-proof versions of the 2-unit coin, as well as 1-unit coins in bronze and silver with modifications to commemorate Expo 2015 in Milan.
If you have one of these coins, I’d love to see some pictures. Please share details in the comments section below – or feel free to challenge me on anything you read in this post.