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Recycling of rare elements in electronics may help environment, create jobs

While there isn't a shortage of rare earth metals, experts say that requiring electronics to be recycled could prevent one, as well as help the environment and create jobs. Photo by INESby/Pixabay
While there isn't a shortage of rare earth metals, experts say that requiring electronics to be recycled could prevent one, as well as help the environment and create jobs. Photo by INESby/Pixabay

May 25 (UPI) -- To ensure manufacturers in Europe have a reliable supply of the rare earth elements needed to make electronics, including components for green technologies, one group of policy analysts wants the European Union to enact new recycling and reuse mandates.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted most global supply chains, some more so than others. Supply chains that rely heavily on a single region or country for raw materials have proven especially vulnerable.

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Over the last few decades, the supply chain for rare earth elements has become increasingly reliant on China -- in 2019, 80 percent of rare earth element imports were sourced from China.

Analysts with the CEWASTE consortium -- a waste treatment advisory group led by the Switzerland-based World Resources Forum -- have recommended mandating the recycling and reuse of "critical raw materials," including cobalt, lithium, palladium and other rare earth elements.

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The group says the requirements would help stabilize the supply chain and prevent future bottlenecks, while also addressing a range of environmental problems associated with electronic waste.

Currently, there are very few economic incentives for the recycling and reuse of rare earth elements and other minerals critical to the production of electronics.

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"[Rare earth elements] are present in very low concentration in a single product and the extra cost to ensure their recovery is currently not factored in," Federico Magalini, mechanical engineer with the sustainability consulting firm SOFIES, told UPI.

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"Most of the recycling schemes are focusing on mass and those metals that are more profitable with a more stable market," Magalini said.

Markets must be created

Robust markets for recycled materials rarely evolve on their own, and must be created by laws and state-mandated programs, because they often carry costs that businesses have to pay, according to experts.

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"For most electronic products and materials, there's a significant cost to recycle them," Scott Cassel, chief executive officer and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute, told UPI.

"It costs more to manage them properly, to recycle and reuse them, than it does to simply source new raw materials and make new products," Cassel said.

In 25 states in the United States, lawmakers have passed "extended producer responsibility" laws, or EPR laws, which require producers to meet certain benchmarks for the collection and recycling of electronic products and e-waste materials.

Many of the U.S. EPR laws are modeled after recycling programs first set up in Europe.

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But due to regulatory gaps, authors of the recent CEWASTE report suggest many electronic products and the critical elements within still aren't being captured by recycling and reuse programs in Europe.

"The idea behind CEWASTE and making this standard mandatory is to ensure waste and fractions containing [critical raw materials] are channeled to the processes that can enable the recovery of those metals," Magalini said.

To ensure a healthy market for recycled rare earth elements and other critical materials, policy analysts argue material- and product-specific mandates need to be coupled with comprehensive quality and environmental standards.

"Because [critical raw materials] might enter into second-hand reuse circuits and exported outside the E.U., we run the risk that they end up in countries where there are no recycling obligations or no mechanisms to ensure that once they reach the end of life they are treated in a way that CRM are recovered," Magalini said. "That's also why we think the standards should be enforced on a global scale."

Shifting priorities

Since current recycling mandates prioritize weight and precious metals over critical raw materials, many products with rare earth metals aren't captured by recycling programs.

Policy analysts suggest updated mandates can be used to encourage the collection and recycling of circuit boards from IT equipment, hard disc drives and optical disc drives, as well as iron boron magnets from the electrical engines of e-bikes, scooters and end-of-life vehicles.

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"Most of the time, critical metals are concentrated in products or components with a very low collection rate, such as mobile phones, portable batteries or laptops and tablets," Magalini said. "And those products are the ones that very often escape formal collection and recycling routes."

With demand for rare earth elements increasing and supply chains under stress, producers in Europe and the United States are looking to develop new mining sources.

Sustainability advocates also say they want to see much of the demand for rare earth elements met via recycling and reuse.

Getting ahead of shortages

Contrary to their name, rare earth elements are not all that rare at the moment.

But with demand unlikely to slow down any time soon -- especially as world governments invest in green technologies like renewable energy and electric vehicles -- experts say it's only a matter of time before they do become rare.

What's more, rare earth element extraction is energy intensive. Increases in rare earth element extraction and processing inevitably increases the industry's carbon footprint.

"We don't realize that by not reusing and recycling electronic waste, that manufacturers have to mine more materials and use more energy in order to make new products, and that extra energy emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere," Cassel said.

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When recyclable products end up in the landfill, the raw materials they contain are lost forever -- materials Cassel says can help relieve pressure on finite natural resources, as well as fuel economic growth.

"Electronics recycling creates thousands of jobs, so we're taking raw materials that could be turned back into other products and throwing them away -- it's like throwing jobs in the garbage," Cassel said.

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