28 October 2015

Recycling is the only way to save Rare Earths


The chances are strong that you are reading this article on a phone. If indeed that is the case, then studies show that you are likely to be walking, waiting or pooing, apparently in that order. That’s the digital revolution for you. Never knowingly off-line, we have never been more interconnected.

Elemently speaking

If you are reading this blog on your mobile phone then there is 1 in 2 chance that it is an iPhone. Ever thought about what goes in to making a phone? Not the cyber-y bit but the actual ingredients you hold in your hand? You may be surprised to learn that your hand-held device has no fewer than 35 different elements within it, more than were once to be found in all your household electronics combined back in 1990.

Your touch-screen owes everything to indium and tin, the combination of which conducts the small charge of electricity held by your finger. The screen is a blend of yttrium, terbium and europium. Its strength depends upon potassium. As you would expect, the microchips are silicon but they have been ‘doped’ with arsenic, phosphorus, antimony or boron to ensure they conduct electricity. Your battery depends upon lithium. Your phone shell is an alloy of magnesium or of aluminium. If you have a plastic cover, its flame retardant properties depend upon bromine. The vibration unit needs terbium. And for the wealth conscious amongst you, your phone will contains 300 milligrams of silver, 30 of gold.

I mention all of this because, of all the elements found on our planet, almost half are running out. Like species hunted to extinction, they are endangered. Remember, elements are the fundamental building bricks of matter; ‘and they’re not makin’ ‘em anymore’. As a planet of consumers, we more throw away more than we recycle. Back to mobile phones; we buy a million new mobile phones every month. What do we do with the old one? Most end up in a drawer as a fall back phone or get chucked out. Did you recycle your old mobile phone? What about your last TV? Clock radio? Etch-a-Sketch? We are not even very good at recycling batteries: it is estimated that 70% of batteries end up as landfill.

Rare Earth Elements…

At the heart of the endangered elements debate are the Rare Earths. Dolly Parton once remarked that she didn’t mind being called a dumb blonde, because she wasn’t dumb and she wasn’t blonde. So it is with Rare Earth Elements, which are neither rare, nor earth. Relatively common, the ‘rare earths’ are so widely dispersed in the Earth’s crust, that they are a challenge to recover. The analogy would be like the sugar in a dumpling rather than the raisins.

Elements concentrated in lumps can be mined. Gold and silver for example are found unadulterated in precious veins. Other elements mix to form ores which can be mined and processed to recover the element. Rare earths are expensive to recover because they don’t ‘clump’ in sufficient quantities. The cost of recovery is high, and depending upon the method and the market, can outweigh the value of the element itself. The sea of full of gold, but good luck to the entrepreneur who seeks to recover it…

…Getting rarer by the year

By 2017, demand for rare Earth Elements is forecast to increase by 20%; 50% by 2020. Take indium: satisfying current demand requires 650 tonnes a year, against an estimated global resource of 50,000 tonnes. Do the math. Based on current projections (which assumes global levels of development and aspiration) indium will run out in 77 years. No more touchscreen technology. What will you do with your finger then?

Under ground? Whose ground?

There is a further unsettling element to the dilemma. Thus far I have suggested that the impediment to our Rare Earth Element future is primarily cost of recovery. However, have a look at the graph.

REE chart

China controls 86% of the production of all the world’s Rare Earth Elements. A benign super power would cause no concern, but in 2010 China restricted the exports of Rare Earths. Within days, the price for some elements had quadrupled. For others the price increase was nine-fold. An intervention by the World Trade Organisation was required before China backed down and sanity returned to the market.

So what’s the plan, man?

We are consuming the elements at a rate of knots. We are dreadful at recycling. Oh and the world supply is in the hands of a global superpower which recently turned off the tap. It was to confront these issues that I was recently joined in Brussels by some of Europe’s leading chemists. Their message was as clear as it was simply: recycle. It’s the only hope.

Of course, recycling is easier said than done. Recycling elements is not like recycling paper or plastic or glass. As mobile phones get smaller, so do the quantities of elements involved. The indium in your iPhone touchscreen is spread on a molecular scale. The new generation of battery is integral to the phone – it doesn’t just unclip from the back – making the recovery of lithium particularly challenging.

Recovering Rare Earths from your electronic devices often requires toxic solvents or extreme temperatures or both, in a process which is certainly energy intensive and usually expensive.

How to improve the recycle cycle

There is, however, some good news. According to Dr Peter Jones and Professor Koen Binnemans of the University of Leuven, who presented last month, some products lend themselves to the easy recovery of elements. Take fluorescent lightbulbs, where the Rare Earths Elements are abundant and the recovery rate is high. Yttrium and europium, elements which give fluorescent bulbs their ‘neon’ glow, are now being recovered in significant quantities.

For those devices with harder to reach elements, the recovery process is not so simple, and the economics don’t stack up. Something is going to have to give.

Did someone say Circular Economy Package?

Most folks outside the Brussels bubble will never have heard of the Circular Economy Package, or be aware that it has been stuck in legislative limbo for nearly three years. Its aim is to improve the economics of recycling, making it cheaper, and easier.

Step one is to eliminate product design ‘flaws’ that make recovering rare earth elements difficult and expensive. In the future, mobile phone companies, car manufacturers and computer companies amongst others must consider the ‘end of life’ phase of each product, making the recovery of elements part of the product design criteria. Not just how do we get the element into the phone but what can be done to make its recovery easier.

Step two is to change consumer attitudes. The days of the throw-away society are numbered. Whilst the ultimate responsibility for recycling lies with the consumer, the EU will work with major electronics companies to set up recycling hubs in major electronics retailers across the EU to make recycling easier.

The proposals are still some way from the legislative finish line. The best guess is that the they will be voted upon by European Parliamentarians in 2017.

However, until the law, with its combination of carrot and stick, enters the statute books, the elements are in your hands. Have a rummage at the back of the drawer, under the bed and in the cupboards, and give your old electronics and the elements they contain a new lease of life. It could make all the difference.

Dr. Ian Duncan is Conservative MEP for Scotland and Chief Whip Spokesman for Energy and Fisheries