China's Rare Earth Reserves Declining, Will We Turn to Urban Mining?

meticulous/CC BY 2.0

Held inside practically every electronic device are rare earth metals. They're a group of 17 elements that are needed to make your cell phone function, your computer run, your music player play. As billions of these devices are made, the planet's stores of rare earth metals are being used up, and China, which provides over 90% of the world's rare earth supplies, warns that it is running low.

According to BBC, "China has warned that the decline in its rare earth reserves in major mining areas is "accelerating", as most of the original resources are depleted. In a policy paper, China's cabinet blamed excessive exploitation and illegal mining for the decline. China accounts for more than 90% of the world's rare earth supplies, but has just 23% of global reserves. It has urged those with reserves to boost production of the elements, which are used to make electrical goods."

The real question, however, is if mining in the traditional sense is truly necessary.

Take gold, for example. Txchnologist reports, "Though small, your handset represents one of the richest mixes of minerals ever. A metric ton of cell phones, about 1,000 units, contains 300-500 grams of gold, [researcher Ian] Williams says. The same amount of gold ore, in contrast, contains only five grams. Japan has the equivalent of 16 percent of the world’s reserves, 6,800 metric tons, sitting idle in old cell phones, according to the country’s National Institute for Materials Science. That outstrips South Africa’s 6,000 metric tons of gold deposits. With six billion cell phone connections worldwide and many upgrades of handsets every 18 months, the devices have become the perfect test for urban mining."

Rather than turning to other countries with deposits of rare earth metals, could we instead increasingly turn to what is considered "waste" -- our old devices being shipped off to pollute in e-waste dumps? It seems as though this is not only a simple and clear solution, but a necessary one for sustainability. And it can be good business.

"At Europe’s largest recycling plant in Hoboken, Belgium, Brussels-based Umicore is already mining discarded cell phones, tablets and laptops and turning them into gold bricks. It generated $766 million in revenue for the company last year, a 20 percent year-on-year rise," writes Txchologist.

So why are there not more recycling businesses focused on snapping up used devices and mining them for minerals? Part of the reason is that it is more expensive, and manufacturers have an eye for keeping costs down, which means buying from China and not from recycling companies. Another reason is incredibly low recycling rates for these devices. In 2009, the EPA reports that only 9% of handheld devices ready for end-of-life management were collected for recycling. Similarly, only 38% of computers and 17% of televisions were collected.

We certainly need to see more people eagerly recycling their electronics at end of life, more recyclers eager to mine those metals from the "waste" and manufacturers willing to purchase them to use in their new products. If this happens, our dependence upon mining the earth for these elements, and the environmental devastation that comes with that mining, can dramatically shrink.

Businesses are not unaware of the issue. Honda, for example, has said that it will start recycling rare earth metals as a way to protect itself from the potential loss of imports from China. The company is looking at starting in September or October, and note that this is a first for the auto industry. Perhaps other companies will follow suit as China curbs its exports.

Perhaps with the slowed supply from China, we'll see and uptick in the number of companies working to make urban mining lucrative as well as in the number of manufacturers looking to recyclers for these essential rare earth metals.

Tags: Gadgets | Recycling | Technology