Study wants EU to recycle rare earths

Feb. 2, 2011 at 1:29 PM

BRUSSELS, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- A study commissioned by the European Greens urges the European Union to adopt a body-wide rare earths recycling scheme to protect the environment and reduce dependency on unpredictable supplier China.

Conducted by Oeko Institut, a German environmental think tank, the study urges Europe to recycle and stockpile rare earth elements -- such as lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium and samarium -- used in high-end products such as solar panels, wind turbines, hybrid cars and missiles.

It wants Brussels to set up a European competence network for rare earths, establish detailed material flow analysis, conduct basic research, plan collection and pilot plants and adapt the legal framework to jumpstart recycling.

"Up to now the low prices of raw materials have not provided any sort of incentive for careful use of valuable raw materials," Doris Schueler, a rare earths expert at the Oeko Institut, said in a statement released Wednesday. "But today we have huge price increases and restricted export from China, a development which has led to a desperate search for new mines."

Sitting atop around one-third of global reserves, China mines and sells 95 percent of the world's rare earths. Last year, Beijing cut export quotas, sending prices higher and shocking officials in Europe, one of the world's largest importers of rare earths.

China has a quickly growing green technology industry and its solar panels and wind turbines are competing with products from Europe and the United States. In the coming years, it will increasingly need the rare earths itself.

The European Commission has vowed to look into domestic production and has drafted a strategy paper that includes a pledge to boost recycling. However, its release has been delayed twice during the past months.

Rare earths can be found in many rock formations -- including in Europe -- but extracting them is expensive and, if not done sustainably, harmful to the environment. Relying on cheap labor and weak environmental regulations, the Chinese have been able to produce rare earths unbeatably cheap. Mines in Australia and the United States, once the global leader in rare earths production, have long closed.

Because prices have risen sharply and in a bid to diversify production, they are to be reopened this and next year, with European companies buying into foreign mines in Latin America. The Oeko Institut commended this step but also urged the EU to boost cooperation with China on sustainable mining to protect the environment.

"We have to ensure today that (rare earths) come from a sustainable production chain," Schueler said. "Alongside environmentally friendly mining, efficient production and use of rare earths are important if this is to be realized."

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