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Insufficient Rare Metals Recycling Could Hurt Climate Efforts, Experts Warn | Recycling

Rare elements such as indium, yttrium, neodymium, cobalt and lithium are vital to the production of low-carbon technology, but many are being discarded due to the lack of a requirement to recycle them, industry experts warn. .

Concerns are growing about the future supply of such elements, as the shift to green technology, including electric vehicles, solar panels, and low-carbon heating, will require much larger volumes of rare earths and other critical raw materials.

Industry experts have called for stricter standards on recycling, in a Cewaste report, a two-year project funded by the EU as part of its Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. The authors examined what is happening to such materials today and their potential future supply and cost.

Recycling should be mandatory for critical raw materials present on circuit boards; magnets used in drives and electric vehicles; batteries for electric vehicles; and fluorescent lamps, they concluded.

Pascal Leroy, CEO of the WEEE Forum, one of the organizations behind the report published Monday, said: “The supply of these materials is not assured, for example, some come from countries where there is political instability. But some of these materials are critical [for green technology in future]. This should be regulated by mandatory rules. “

Fast guide

What are rare earth metals and what are they used for?


What are rare earth metals?

Rare earths refer to a group of 17 elements that are prized for their unique electrochemical and magnetic properties. They include elements such as cobalt, gadolinium, lanthanum, cerium, and promethium, and are vital in the production of cancer drugs, smartphones, and renewable energy technologies.

Where do they come from?

They are not actually very rare and can be found in the earth’s crust. However, they are often in low concentrations and are difficult and expensive to extract. The process can also harm the environment, putting ecosystems at risk from open pit mining, the release of metal by-products from refineries, and water pollution from particulates that are dumped during waste disposal.

What are they used for?

The use of rare earths is wide and varied, from national defense to consumer goods. They are used in healthcare, including for surgical supplies, pacemakers, cancer treatment drugs, and rheumatoid arthritis drugs. They are also found in telescope lenses, aircraft engines, and are used as catalysts in automobile exhaust systems to help reduce emissions.

Neodymium is often used to produce high-power infrared lasers for national defense, while military suppliers, such as BAE systems, use rare earths to produce sensors for missile systems.

Industry experts have warned that they are vital to the production of low-carbon technology, but many are being scrapped due to the lack of a requirement to recycle them.

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While relatively low-value metals such as copper, iron, and even platinum are frequently recycled, rare metals are ignored or thrown away, because their use is often in small quantities that recyclers consider too expensive to recover.

However, uncertainties about the future supply of such materials and rapidly increasing demand, driven by the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, could force a future supply crisis for critical materials, which not only it would raise prices but could be very detrimental to creating a green economy, the report’s authors found. Waiting for those price increases to make recycling inexpensive would leave manufacturers highly vulnerable to future crises, they said.

Federico Magalini, Managing Director of Sofies UK, a consultancy involved in the Cewaste report, said: “If we leave it as usual, we will dissipate materials and in 20 years we will have a shortage. Currently there is no economic incentive to recycle some materials ”.

The small amounts of rare materials present in final products mean that recycling of some materials could be concentrated in a small number of facilities. For example, Europe would only need a handful of factories to recover fluorescent powders from all the lamps used across the continent.

Recycling efforts have tended to focus on high-volume metals that are easier to recycle, such as iron, aluminum, and copper. In the EU, regulatory targets are based on weight and volume, so there is little incentive for recyclers to seek out small volumes of rare metals, despite their value.

The International Energy Agency recently calculated that if the world is to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions in 2050, the demand for critical and rare minerals will be six times higher than today by 2040. The demand for lithium will only be 40 times higher in 2040 due to its use in batteries.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the energy watchdog, said: “The data shows an imminent mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions. If left unaddressed, these potential vulnerabilities could make global progress towards a clean energy future slower and more costly, and therefore hamper international efforts to address climate change. “

The IEA found that the production and processing of many materials, such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earths, were highly concentrated in a handful of countries, with the top three producers accounting for more than three-quarters of global supplies. The Democratic Republic of the Congo produced 70% of cobalt and rare earths in 2019, and China produced 60%. China is also responsible for refining almost 90% of the rare earths used globally.

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