The mining of Rare earth elements and metals has been shown to have a damaging impact on the environment as concentrations of toxic chemicals and radioactive waste are left behind in the soil and water, often sickening people and animals and laying waste to surrounding areas. Also, with a limited number of economically viable sources of rare earths, and with 95% of rare earths currently mined in China, there is supply risk and prices have greatly increased. It is therefore imperative that we seek opportunities to recycle and reuse rare earth materials.
It is estimated that recycling currently accounts for only 1% of the production of rare earth elements. However, most of the rare earths used in computer hard drives and florescent lighting can be economically extracted and reused and thus lower our reliance on foreign supply, which could result in lowering the costs of these rare earth elements.
There is some consumer resistance to recycling electronic devices and fluorescent light bulbs. According to the EPA, in 2009 only 8% of mobile phones, 18% of televisions, and 38% of computers, and only 3-5% of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) were recycled! It is urgent that we increase these rates(for more information on these statistics, click here).
For items like cell phones, it is currently difficult and expensive to extract rare earth elements . Cell phones use rare earths in quantities that are very minute. For example, the tiny neodymium magnets that help power the speaker or the vibrating function of a cell phone are worth less than a dollar and are very difficult to recover, making their recycling uneconomical. Alex King of the Ames Lab in Ames, Iowa, and director of the Critical Materials Institute — a U.S. Department of Energy–funded “Innovation Hub” that creates strategies for ensuring the supply of five rare earth metals identified by the government as critical, stated, "It’s actually getting much harder to recycle electronics. We used to have cell phones where you could snap out the battery, which is probably the biggest single target for recycling. With smartphones, those things are built so you can’t get the battery out, at least not easily.” (quoted from this article) Even the gold, silver and palladium found in most cell phones is contained in such a small amount that it is valued at less than a dollar or two. Rather than extracting and recycling the rare earth elements and metals in cell phones, it may be much better and more economical to refurbish and/or recycle the whole phone. Computers have larger magnets that enable the hard disc drives to function. A recent study that calculated the energy and environmental impacts of producing a kilogram of the rare earth metal neodymium for magnets by recycling computer hard drives, versus mining the same amount of material, showed that recycling had a human toxicity score more than 80 percent lower than mining and used almost 60 percent less energy. The rare earth phosphors in LCD screens like europium, terbium and yttrium are also recoverable
The amount of rare earths in fluorescent light bulbs is small also, but they are easier to extract. CFL recycling in the past was due mostly to the mercury contained in CFLs. The white dust inside these bulbs, which are the heavy rare earth phosphors, was often not saved. Since prices for these phosphors have increased, recyclers are now utilizing these phosphors. More information on this process can be found here.
With the devastating effects of rare earth mining, limited sources of supply, and the escalating costs of rare earth elements, it is important that we educate ourselves and other consumers to the necessity of recycling and reusing rare earth elements.
Environmental Protection Agency. "ECycling." Wastes- Resource Conservation - Common Wastes & Materials - ECycling. www.epa.gov, 7 Mar. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
Free, Kathryn (2014, March 3). The future of rare earth recycling. Retrieved November 10, 2014.
Marshall, Jessica (2014, April 7). Why Rare Earth Recycling Is Rare (And What We Can Do About It). Retrieved November 10, 2014.