20-50 million tonnes of electric waste per year

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

What do televisions, LED light bulbs, wind turbines and mobile phones have in common? They all contain ‘rare earth metals’ [1]. There are 17 of these metals, small amounts of which are found in the Earth’s crust [1,4].

Rare earth metals are very useful: some are essential components of high-tech products that are needed for tackling climate change, such as lithium for electric car batteries and dysprosium for wind turbines [1,4].

It is becoming more difficult to mine enough of these metals to meet the growing demand [1,4]. This is partly because China produces about 90% of all rare earth metals; because of increasingly tight export limits from China, the rest of the world is faced with a supply risk [4]. With increasing demand, the problem is made even worse. For example, it’s predicted that demand for dysprosium will be 2600% higher in 2035 than it was in 2010 [5]. Whilst scientists are researching alternative materials, in the meantime there is pressure to fill the gap [1].

Recycling rare earth metals may be the answer! It’s estimated that the world generates 20-50 million tonnes of electric waste (e-waste) each year [3]. Whilst much of it goes to landfill, in developing countries it is often burnt or dumped on open-land or in rivers [2,3]. Both this poor disposal and the mining of the metals have serious negative effects on the environment and workers [2,4]. For example, it’s thought that about 50 thousand children are involved in informal e-waste collection and recycling, exposing them to toxic materials leading to long-term illness and deaths [3].

If the rare earth metals are recycled properly, this could prevent us from running out of these precious resources and help the environment and people [1,2]. But recycling rare earth metals is not easy [1]. We’ll look into how it can be done in the next post!


[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1674987119300258 See: Abstract, Introduction, Distribution of REE in the Earths crust and mineralogy, Recycling

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652614010683#bib6 See: ‘Historically, e-waste has been treated or disposed of by landfill, in some developed countries, or by informal incineration in some developing countries’

[3] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0734242X12453378?casa_token=NnMTAvnp970AAAAA%3AGXCvDcwCUjiP_QuOhLkwamiVXqMUan8mTwGRGVTm508sdRy9_VosQOS8bgnxoTJ9ofOtIaT6bPU See: Abstract, Environmental and health impacts of e-waste management in Asian countries, Issues and challenges for ESM of e-waste

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652612006932 See: Abstract, Introduction

[5] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es203518d See: Abstract

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