Wasted Space: why rare earth elements are important to recycling

When it comes to gadgets – whether it be a computer, television or mobile phone – with every upside, there is a downside. While gadgets and gizmos have certainly made our lives easier over the past few decades, unlike the Olympic Gods, they do have an expiry date. Unlike many other forms of waste, some of the components in our old mobile phones, televisions, computers and an array of other homeware, are literally worth their weight in gold. But people throw them on the scrap heap anyway. 

Rare earth elements, or metals, are a case in point. These elements have wonderful names such as Yttrium (useful if a tooth needs a crown), Scandium (great for aerospace components), Promethium (for those very handy nuclear batteries), and Praseodymium (try saying that three times quickly after a couple of shaken martini’s!). They’re also crucial for components in such things as television and computer screens, electric vehicles, and hard disk drives. In other words, they are very important.

With our reliance on digital and electronic goods becoming more so over the past three decades – and that reliance is only set to increase – recovery of these elements is becoming paramount. 

Thing is, the name is a misnomer. Some of these ‘rare’ elements are not rare at all. In some cases, more of these elements exist in the Earth’s crust than gold, silver and platinum – or even copper or lead. The issue is getting them out of the ground. And that is where things become a bit sticky. Because one of the countries with the biggest deposits – and who are running the show for want of a better saying – is China. Up to 90 per cent of these metals come from the Middle Kingdom. Other places that have deposits include the US, Myanmar and here in the Great Southern Land, but nowhere on the scale as our south-east Asian contemporaries.

And by Jove, do they know it. China has gone to extraordinary lengths to let the rest of us know who’s in charge. In the past decade, not only have they wound down production, but any of the smaller mines have been forced to amalgamate or be shut down so the internal bureaucracy can keep an eye on the comings and goings of what is being mined. I won’t even go into the environmentally unfriendly ways that are needed to extract these elements from the ground.

Read more: Wasted Space: Should we trust self regulation

Add to that, a recent article in Science News (I know, you’re surprised that I’m exerting my academic prowess at I approach middle age) stated that by 2050 the planet will need up to seven times the amount of these elements than it is processing now in order to meet demand.

Where is all this conjecture leading? Recycling. The same article announced that just over one per cent of these metals are recycled mainly due to the process needed to do so – hydrochloric acid being the main medium.

However, scientists are said to be working on new ways to extract out these elements from the electronic goods where they are currently housed. It is hoped that this extraction process will cover about 25 per cent of manufacturing and industrial needs for these elements. 

I’m not holding my breath, but if we can negate our reliance of these elements from a source that’s intent on monopolising the feedstock, well, that can only be a good thing, right?

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