Global Recycling of Rare Earth Metals: Is this a good solution?

The global demand for electronic items like cell phones or computers outweighs the concern by manufacturers about remaining “green”. Rare earth elements/metals, or REEs, are necessary to build today’s technology. China is the main location for the mining and processing of REEs and the world depends on this outsourcing. This grants China the reign over REE trade. China regulates the manufacturing, inventory, and prices of REEs. This benefits China economically. They are taking advantage of the concept of “supply and demand”.
Decreased production/mining of REEs, while the demand for electronic creation remains high, creates a valuable imbalance causing prices to justifiably remain high. In 2010, China was responsible for 97 percent of the world’s supply of REEs; the same year China limited their exports, driving prices sky high. Mining facilities were built to try and recoup some of the major US companies in need of REEs. This decreased REE prices and – in part – their volatility.

One solution many from the United States (and other REE reliant countries) have thought of to decrease their dependency on China is by recycling the electronic products they already have. However, this might not be as easy as it sounds. Not only are people concerned about loss of personal information on electronics, but there are technical issues which create longer processes than we originally might have thought. “New phones contain around 65 elements, compared to the 85 used in all of industry.” says Alex King of the Ames Lab and director of the Critical Materials Institute. This alone makes the organization of elements in the recycling process much more difficult. Yale University industrial ecologist Thomas Graedel believes that the energy cost increase to recycle these electronics is arguably more harmful to the environment than simply continuing to mine the REEs. “We don’t know how to manufacture things for recyclability, in this country especially.” states Eric Peterson of Idaho National Laboratory, “We have to learn how to do that.”


Tessa Schwass