Rare Earth Metals Rarely Sustainable
Fossil fuels comprise the great majority of the public’s attention when discussing environmental sustainability. This isn’t surprising given our dependence on oil and the extensive environmental damage caused by carbon emissions. However, we also depend on rare earth metals to sustain our modern life styles and their refining causes a devastating impact on the environment as well. Without these resources and their environmentally harmful manufacturing process, our entire digital economy would be in danger of collapsing. Like with fossil fuels, we have to ask the following questions: how can we minimize the negative impacts of rare earth metals and what sustainable alternatives exist to replace them in the future?
So what exactly are rare earth metals? Despite the name, most of them aren’t actually rare, at least in the way that we normally understand the term. They consist of seventeen different elements high up on the periodic table and have strange names like Cerium Oxide, Scandium, and Yttrium. Good luck pronouncing that last one. Sixteen of them are actually quite abundant in nature, but they are almost always chemically mixed with other elements. What makes them “rare” in the scientific sense of the term is that they are very difficult to purify for use in manufacturing. The reason why they are so important is that these materials are needed to make superconducting magnets, cathode ray tubes, electronic polishers, and a whole bunch of other products that help make our digital technology and cell phones possible.
Although most of them are not toxic by themselves, the refining process causes immense environmental damage. In fact, the consequences of manufacturing them are so bad that few outside of China are willing to risk the health and safety of their citizens to refine them. Despite the fact that China only has 37 percent of the world’s rare earth metals, they refine over 95 percent of them. In fact, the environmental devastation is so horrifying that a lake near the industrial city of Baotou in Inner Mongolia where most of these metals are processed looks like something out of Mordor from Lord of the Rings. On average, one ton of refined earth metals creates two thousand tons of toxic waste. The devastation reeked by the processing of these materials is so bad that even capitalist countries like Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the United States, who have extensive rare earth deposits of their own, are not enthusiastic about exploiting the resource.
China’s well-known willingness to poison its own environment and people for the sake of economic growth has come with political and economic advantages for the country. Since the world depends on these metals for the digital economy, China has been able to carefully control the manufacture and export of these materials to their benefit. Over the last decade, the country has placed tighter restrictions on the export of processed rare earth metals. This forced Western manufacturing companies like Apple and General Motors to move battery and magnet factories to the country. Don’t feel too bad for these companies. They have been outsourcing their factories to China to exploit cheaper labor for several decades now. Apple’s iPhone factories in China are so oppressive that nets needed to be placed on the sides of their buildings at one point to reduce the number of work related suicides. For its part, China has spoken in the past of using rare earth metals as a political weapon in the same way that oil is used in the Middle East. Although this political weapon has its limits since cutting off supplies will only cause other countries to intensify their search for alternatives, the Chinese monopoly presents a genuine security risk to the rest of the world. In the last couple of years, various countries with rare metals have been attempting to break China’s monopoly, and a few have made substantial progress.
Now before we start placing the full blame on evil corporations and the despotic Chinese state for destroying the environment, keep in mind that we use these materials every day in our computers, phones, and cars. Even our green technology—including electric cars, wind turbines, and solar panels—makes extensive use of rare earth metals. So while George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio are making the rest of us feel terrible for not buying electric vehicles, they are only solving one environmental problem by contributing to another. Our unquenchable thirst for the latest Blackberry or I-Phone means we are exporting environmental pollution and cancer to Chinese villagers at a frightening rate.
So how do we solve this problem? Given the great diversity of earth metals and the many different uses they have, the solution will have to be multi-faceted. For one, many governments and companies are already investing into research on looking for safer ways to process these materials and store the waste that is created. China only controls about a third of this resource, so if the refining process is made safer, other countries can get in on the act. Of course, this may make our electronics more expensive to produce in the short term, but it will be needed in the interest of human health and environmental protection. Hopefully, in the long term, greater investment in this endeavor will lead to cheaper methods of safely refining the resource. The most difficult part will be pressuring China to adopt more environmentally friendly policies since this would effectively end their control of rare metal production. China for its part has already started to make some very modest reforms to ease growing public concern over pollution, but much more action will be needed in the future.
The second solution is to find various replacements for different rare earth metals from cheaper and safer materials like copper and iron. Many universities and businesses are already working on creating magnets that utilize more abundant and cleaner resources. According to the website Chemistry World, “The U.S. Department of Energy has sponsored 14 projects to the tune of $27 million.” President Obama also recently established a “Materials Genome Initiative Project” to find suitable replacements for environmentally destructive and rare resources. Greater investment into the sciences behind this endeavor are necessary in the future. In contrast to the Republican rhetoric on eliminating bureaucracies like the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, these organizations actually do serve a useful purpose.
Finally, finding ways to recycle rare earth metals and reduce our use of electronics will be part of the solution. At the risk of making this article sound like a lame after school special, we should all put in a greater effort to take care of our electronic equipment and not buy a new cell phone once a year. Using interchangeable parts to repair our electronic equipment instead of buying a new one will be necessary. Different companies are also looking for different technological substitutes that can replace products that use rare earth metals. Universities are also looking for ways to recycle them, and some progress has already been made. Also, NGO’s like Fairphone have attempted to create a grass roots movement to change the entire way people interact with their smart phones. From mining, design, manufacturing, to the life cycle of the phone, there are many areas where we can make improvements. To solve the problem with rare earth metals, we may to have change the way we use our electronic devices.