published on 13 May 2021 in earth

Rare earth elements, research highlights need for recycling

They have magnetic and electrochemical properties that are unique amongst the elements of the periodic table, and they are indispensable for the manufacture of new technologies, as well as systems for the production of wind and solar energy and for optical communications. There are 17 metals called ‘rare earth elements’. Contrary to what the name might suggest, rare earth elements are widespread in the earth’s crust, but extracting and refining them has very high environmental and social costs. Although they are considered strategic resources, up to now there has never been any obligation to recycle them, even though we may need them more and more in the future. This is the assumption on which the latest Cewaste report, a two-year EU-funded project included in the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, published on Monday 10 May, was based.

Periodic table: rare earth elements are highlighted in orange. Credits: Zanichelli

Experts examined what is currently happening to rare earth elements, their future supply and cost. What emerges is that the supply of these materials is not guaranteed, because, for example, some rare earth elements come from politically unstable countries. As many of these resources are crucial for the development of sustainable technologies, the authors of the report called for stricter rules on their recycling, arguing that it should be mandatory especially for the main raw materials used in printed circuit boards, electric vehicles and fluorescent lamps. While relatively low-value metals such as copper, iron and even platinum are often recycled, rare earth elements are generally discarded because they are present in such small quantities that their recovery is too expensive. In addition to uncertainty about the future supply of rare earth elements, the risk is that prices may also rise, with major consequences and slowdowns in the transition to a circular and sustainable low-carbon economy.

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