Rare earths? Firstly, the name is a misnomer as they are not rare, but abundant -just difficult, and therefore costly, to extract. Rare earths are highly valued as they provide essential material for all the electronic gadgets we prize: the laptop I am writing this blog on, the phone I have just used, the television I watched last night and so on.
Most rare earths sit in the lanthanide section of the Periodic Table, gradually gaining attention as more countries realise the potential and significance of these elements. The growth and prosperity of a nation partly rests on the key resources it has or can get access to either through leverage or money.
Between 2008 -11 China exported around 90% of its rare earths. In 2011 China reassessed its position, and understanding that the finite supply of these precious materials would put it in a vulnerable position if it ran out, now only ships out 50%. At the same time the USA resented China’s grip on the market and their spiralling charges, and reopened some of their mines.
The European strategy is to salvage rare earth metals and reuse them. This month I visited Recycling Lives in Preston (all photos here are taken on the visit), one of the leading companies in the recovery and recycling of electronic goods. Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is the largest growing waste stream in the EU. Recycling Lives alone recycle 150-200,000 televisions every year. If the machines still work they are refurbished and sold on supporting the waste hierarchy of re-use. But all the redundant ‘fat’, plasma and LCD televisions are there alongside outmoded laptops and broken computers. It’s an amazing and startling sight: hundreds of televisions tumbling out of lorries, black and grey with the odd pink and green case vying for attention. Long benches of people systematically stripping the machines down to their constituent parts: working like machines on machines. Bales of grey and black plastic stacked high waiting to be sent to the polymer recycler for chipping, screen glass is crushed and recycled, circuit boards are graded and stored, metals are salvaged with copper, a prized treasure, being scrupulously saved.
Initially, this captures a wonderful scene of a modern nation sensibly managing its waste, and it is, but there is a dark side. Inside our favourite gadgets are dangerous materials that are difficult and expensive to safely dispose off. To handle this at Recycling Lives there are sealed areas in the warehouse that ‘manage’ the toxic substances present in all the electronic goods. Highly protected in specialist gear the workers remove and contain the hazardous materials such as phosphorus. It is then put into barrels and processed at a purpose built facility. To reduce both the level of hazardous waste and the costs incurred in safely handling it, it was agreed in Brussels only last month that LED bulbs should replace the phosphorus ones – LEDs do not contain mercury.
Each of us generates around 3.3 tonnes of WEEE in a lifetime and globally we create 50 million tonnes annually. The screens have captured both our attention and documented our lives and the aggregate of that engagement is visible in the huge piles of WEEE littered around the globe.