Corporations that depend on REEs are doing their part, too. For example, Subaru is working with its vendors to find substitutes for these materials in such components as catalytic converters, hybrid batteries, and power-steering motors. Also, in Japan, lithium-ion batteries are collected and recycled.
Japanese manufacturers have teamed up with Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to develop recycling technology, with the goal of cutting Japan’s rare earth imports 10 percent by 2025.
Scientists around the world are studying manufacturing processes to see if products that use REEs can be designed to boost efficiency and make REE recycling easier.
Only 1 percent of rare earth metals are recycled, and there is no standard recycling method. Partly, this is because REEs commonly are used in such small amounts – 300 tons of recycled waste from electronic devices result in only 1/3 pound of rare earth metals – and because they are highly reactive, which causes them to change and lose their properties when exposed to air.
Researchers at Molycorp, the Ames Lab, and the University of Leuven in Belgium are studying various techniques for recycling REEs. In France, two REE recycling plants have opened to recover materials from lightbulbs, batteries, and magnets.
Recycling and reusing electronic products (TVs, monitors, cameras, circuit boards, chips, phones, etc.) are two ways we all can help alleviate shortages of REEs and reduce their environmental impacts. Doing so not only recovers materials, but also saves the energy used in mining and processing, conserves resources, and reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Learn more about recycling electronics.