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Sustainable?

February 26, 2019

Basically it isn’t.

Whatever you are thinking,

However you do it,

It’s probably not,

and it’s most likely to be that way because we are greedy.

 

sustainable
adjective
1.
able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
“sustainable economic growth”
2.
able to be upheld or defended.
“sustainable definitions of good educational practice”
We recently ran out of a particular type of Australian clay. When I say ‘we’ I don’t mean a particular company or household, I mean the BIG ‘we’, the collective, Australia.  Australia simply had no more of that type of clay to economically mine so the mine closed.
Now up until that point I doubt that many people had stopped to think about life post clay apocalypse.  Clay is natural, natural is better, natural is renewable, natural is sustainable.
Do you know how long it takes to form new clay?
Me neither until I googled it.
Then, with my appetite for facts and detail not sated I actually had to go on and read a lot to confirm my suspicion that clay takes thousands of years to form:
Here is the opening paragraph from a paper entitled ‘clay mineral formation and transformation in rocks and soils. 
“Three mechanisms for clay mineral formation (inheritance, neoformation, and transformation) operating in three geological environments (weathering, sedimentary, and diagenetic-hydrothermal) yield nine possibilities for die origin of clay minerals in nature. Several of these possibilities are discussed in terms of the rock cycle. The mineralogy of clays neoformed in the weathering environment is a function of solution chemistry, with the most dilute solutions favouring formation of the least soluble clays”
Basically, in layman terms that means ‘it’s complicated and takes a while’.
This data sheet from the Australian government outlines things in simpler terms and eludes to the fact that the kaolin deposits that we mine today date back from the Jurassic and Permian period (the Permian period was around 299-251 million years ago, Jurassic was 199-145 million years ago).
If you have taken some time out of your life to read the links that I’ve posted above you will probably be sitting here thinking ‘but the NSW chaps said that there are still thousands if not millions of tonnes of kaolin out there to mine, we’ll never run out!’  That, of course is correct on many levels – when we mine and use clay we don’t destroy it, we just move it, change its shape a bit, maybe it’s chemistry a little then eventually it gets back to the earth either in land fill or by settling to the bottom of one water way or another – however, it is also incorrect.
While mining is often possible, it’s not always practical or desirable.
I think that we sometimes lose sight of that just like we often lose sight of the fact that mining involves digging, digging involves environmental change and environmental change has its own set of consequences which we may, or may not be OK with.
I wanted to see what mining for Kaolin looked like, just as an example, so we can all ponder that when we purchase our next batch of clay.
Kaolin mining Western Australia
The above pictures were found on the website of a company based in Taiwan called Choko which had listed these pictures as examples of where their high purity kaolin comes from. I can only assume that is correct. Here is the link. 
I found this pamphlet which was also very interesting and helped confirm the process of Kaolin mining to me, plus there’s some more pictures which do agree with those above.  Like any mining, kaolin mining is quite an energetic process involving moving vast amounts of earth, sifting and grading, then distributing the product.  This also involves water, usually quite a bit. The kaolin deposits may be located in a water way or not but either way,  washing of the kaolin is all part of its process.
So that’s that.
And with that I’m back to my opening title in a neat fruit-loop thought.
I’ve been pondering the sustainability of kaolin ever since hearing about the closing of the mine that I talked about.  I wondered how we, as humans could be so detached from what it actually means to mine clay. The energy and intent that goes into its exploration and subsequent liberation. The land change, the movement or earth and people, the scarring it leaves, the remediated ‘nature’ that gets created afterwards.  I ended up finding myself wondering what people actually think about when they purchase their clay.  Where do they think it comes from? What do they think makes it what it is? How do they think it formed?   I’ve not particularly written my exploration, this,  in long-hand this time. Instead,  I’ve left you some links to explore yourself, like all good miners, the initial exploration has to be deep, detailed and personally worth the gamble of investing further.
As a chemist I’m feeling a strange sense of satisfaction at the level of chemistry that has gone into creating something that we tend to think of as so simple, so basic.  It turns out its not simple at all and indeed, it leaves me wondering that if us humans had set up a factory to turn rock into kaolin it would probably be deemed too chemical a process to ever be called natural, such is the weirdness of life these days…
Looks like as long as we are not obscenely greedy and as long as we appreciate that the simple Kaolin that we slap on our faces is a result of millions of years of chemical reactions that have crushed and reacted together animals, vegetables and minerals then we might just be able to enjoy it forever – as long as we accept and appreciate that to do so requires some land change and subsequent remediation. After all, ‘we’ don’t create clay, nature does and nature lets us borrow it and accepts it back (albeit into a different space and time).
Clay – to be known from now on by me as ‘dust of Pangaea’. May contain Dimetrodon, gluten and traces of nuts.
Sustainable unless you are very greedy and let’s face it, most humans are.
Dimetrodon
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