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.
This article connects with my toxicology research thread.
Last December I accompanied MSc Waste Managers on a research visit around a waste incinerator in Bolton. My post on 9 December 2012, beautifuldystopias.wordpress.com, recalls the mixed messages I was struggling with that day. The science seemed to stack up in favour of the furnace: the technologies to deal with the polluting emissions has been significantly improved, the calorific value of the waste varies according to the nature of the rubbish being burnt, so the amount of power it generates is variable, which is logical. In the UK we can no longer dump our unwanted possessions in the ground, as we have already filled in holes with our materialistic habits, so we need to seriously take a look at alternative methods. OR we could value what we have, buy better stuff that lasts longer, mend things, respond less to fashion and marketing drives to dispose and replace everything regularly. I wonder what will happen?
Scientists talk about the Anthropocene, or The Age of Man: the new epoch is man’s imprint on the planet visible in radioactive material from atomic bomb tests, plastic pollution, increased carbon dioxide levels and human induced mass extinction.
“We broke it, we bought it, we own it and now we’ve got to take responsibility for it. ” Geographer Erle Ellis, Professor at University of Maryland, USA
Lately, I have been in wonder at how three light bulbs were able to be washed up unbroken on the shore after a storm.
Please read this article in the Guardian and remind yourself just how frightening brutal and short-sighted we are in respect to our planet and all that inhabit it.
A loud wake-up call to everyone at the dawn of 2013 – but will we ever change?
“Desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything wither and fade. ”
Is this thought from Marcel Proust an apt ponder after Christmas or before?
My sculpture ‘Lifeline’ explores the notion that we are all locked into the grid. Made by weaving old, discarded cables from appliances into a solid sphere of dead weight.
I saw a collection of these adverts in entrances to a shopping mall in Croyden, some of you may know it, is it me or is this the egos of marketing gurus on viagra and nothing to do with quotidian?
The impact from consumer targeted marketing, or buyer brain-washing, is surely another important facet in the puzzle. By the nature of marketing it wants to be effective, and therefore is less hidden, but the actual laundering can be pernicious.
Andy Reade showed me round the amazing ‘Create’ social enterprise in Liverpool on 19 March. An organisation that takes the waste heirarchy seriously by turning our rejects into goods we need and want through mending and refurbishment. www.reade.me.uk