A New Hope for the Dark Side of Digital Transition
Updated: Jun 17, 2020
As it was recently pointed out to us on one of our articles, it is indeed quite hard to support both a sustainable and digital transition. Indeed, the digital transition has some fantastic perks. As we are regularly pointing out in our articles; environmental software, more extensive expansion of the circular economy, optimisation of shipping routes or diminution of unnecessary travel, are but instances of what digitalisation has to offer to facilitate the sustainable transition. Although digitalisation also means more and more hardware being produced, and these products are light years away from being good for the environment.
The central role of rare earth materials
This is due to mostly one type of element that is found in every computer or hardware; rare earth. Essentially, rare earth elements are, as the name suggests, rare metals that are used as catalysts in computers, laptops, batteries, DVDs… chances are you are surrounded by rare earth when you are reading this article. There are many articles explaining way better than I ever could the relevance of these rare earth materials; you can find a selected list down below in our sources. As these materials are mostly used in new technologies and computer, you would understand that in the past years there has been an explosion in the global demand.
In “The Hidden Face of the Energy and Digital Transition” Guillaume Pitron explains how China successfully managed to acquire 90% of rare earth production. Through price dumping and political manoeuvre, China made sure that most other mines would shut down. Opening new exploitation of rare metals would take around 20 years before it would be in service and start to produce, not to mention the substantial investment that is not planned in any western country’s budget.
Now, where is the problem with China owning these mines?
As we have said repeatedly in our policy analysis, the EU investing so much in environmental transition will be beneficial to set up international standards, meaning that in an open market, EU’s products will be regarded as highly sustainable and gain an advantage. Although, in the case of rare earth materials, when China owns 90% of the mines, it does not need to follow strict environmental regulations to be competitive.
And oh boy the environmental regulations are quasi inexistent. Thousands of litters of water are being spiled to operate the mines, several chemicals scattered to treat the metals, thus polluting rivers and having an extra heavy influence on surrounding biodiversity. Overexploitation of these materials has a hefty toll on the environment.
Although as said in the introduction, stopping computer, phones, cars, batteries, DVD’s, watches and cameras is not an option. Then how can we further develop our over-connected world without impacting the environment so negatively?
For one thing, the circular economy is considered the best option to reduce our impact. Indeed, opening a mine in 20 years in the hopes to set up environmental stewardship quickly would be foolish, and the impact would be way too low way too late. Under these circumstances, the best option we have is to re-use the rare earth materials that we currently have. Have you ever wondered what happened to your old phone or your old computer when it died?
The chances are that it is now buried under a mountain of electronic material in Togo. Not only are the rare earth material lost in the process, and these materials are costly, they also pollute their environment where they are now! That is the worst outcome, and yet this is the status quo! Typically, only about 1% of these magnets are being recycled.
Recycling rare earth does come with its disadvantages; otherwise, it would surely be way more developed. Setting up the recycling industry will undoubtedly be costly, and it will take some time to develop the market. The price dumping operated by China and the quasi monopole allows the competition to be fierce.
If we take a concrete example in 2012 and 2013, the market price of yttrium was very high due to a shortage of production and intense global demand. Therefore, it was more profitable to recycle (both collection and treatment) yttrium than to import it. Although, in 2014 and 2016, the prices had dropped, and it was cheaper to import. Further, using the hydrogen process could result in 88% reduced energy and lead to a 98% reduction on human toxicity compared to the baseline primary production process as mapped by Ben Sprecher.
Although from economic stability to political advantage and environmental benefits, the advantages heavily outweigh the disadvantages, it only takes a few willing souls to kickstart the recycling industry.
Recycling rare earth in Europe
The REE4EU project (rare earth recycling for Europe) has demonstrated outstanding results. The project has already managed to treat tons of wastes and end of life products containing rare earth materials. Through the recycling process, the project recovered nearly one hundred kilos of rare earth alloys directly from the mixed rare earth oxides feedstock produced. What was recovered will then be re-used to produce new hardware and permanent magnets. Not only does this process avoid intense pollution from rare earth production, but it also is a great way to give Europe the cards to control the market prices of such material typically produced elsewhere.
The Italian company Relight Ltd. is also a pioneer since 2005 in the treatment and recycling of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)! Indeed, the company is taking the full process in hand as it is responsible for collection and storage of electronic waste, which is increasingly important, the more we consume, the more we create waste, and they take care of treatment! Their recovery rate of almost 80% is appropriately astonishing and demonstrate the potential of a young industry.
Now imagine both projects being part of a heavily competitive and properly funded industry pushing for more innovation, the recovery rates could rocket, and we might be able to create a completely circular economy! Although this is a vast topic and we will surely have way more to say on it very soon!
Stay safe, live long, live green!
 Nickels, L. (2020). Reclaiming rare earth metals. Metal Powder Report. doi:10.1016/j.mprp.2019.12.003
Charalampides, G., Vatalis, K. I., Apostoplos, B., & Ploutarch-Nikolas, B. (2015). Rare Earth Elements: Industrial Applications and Economic Dependency of Europe. Procedia Economics and Finance, 24, 126–135. doi:10.1016/s2212-5671(15)00630-9
Favot, M., & Massarutto, A. (2019). Rare-earth elements in the circular economy: The case of yttrium. Journal of Environmental Management, 240, 504–510. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2019.04.002
Lukowiak, A., Zur, L., Tomala, R., LamTran, T. N., Bouajaj, A., Strek, W., … Ferrari, M. (2020). Rare earth elements and urban mines: Critical strategies for sustainable development. Ceramics International. doi:10.1016/j.ceramint.2020.03.067
Mez, L., Okamura, L., & Weidner, H. (Eds.). (2020). The Ecological Modernization Capacity of Japan and Germany. Energiepolitik Und Klimaschutz. Energy Policy and Climate Protection. doi:10.1007/978-3-658-27405-4
Nickels, L. (2020). Reclaiming rare earth metals. Metal Powder Report. doi:10.1016/j.mprp.2019.12.003
Rare Earth Recycling for Europe Project, REE4EU. http://www.ree4eu.eu/