Rare earths – A turning point for efficiency and recycling

31.01.2011

The recycling of rare earths is a strategy geared to the sustainable use of valuable raw materials in times of rising prices and the scarcity of such resources. In a study commissioned by the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament under the auspices of Reinhard Bütikofer, Oeko-Institut proposes an eight point plan for the development of a European recycling scheme. It shows what sustainable resources management for neodymium, terbium, lanthanum & co. might look like.

“Today we need rare earths in order to launch into a green future with energy-saving lighting, catalysts and electric vehicles”, explains Dr. Doris Schüler. “But we have to ensure today that they come from a sustainable production chain. Alongside environmentally-friendly mining, efficient production and use of rare earths are important if this is to be realised. Oeko-Institut believes that there is still a lot of potential for optimisation in this area.”

As an alternative to intensive exploitation of the respective resources, the researchers at Oeko-Institut recommend comprehensive recycling of rare earths. In this way high dependency on scarce resources can be avoided. In terms of rare earths the implementation of an EU-wide recycling scheme is crucial. Today Europe is one of the world’s largest consumers of rare earths. Hence in the medium term significant quantities of rare earths will land in future waste flows.

In this study Oeko-Institut presents a strategy to this end, which includes important steps such as setting up a European Competence Network for Rare Earths, establishing detailed material flow analysis, conducting basic research, planning collection and pilot plants and adapting the legal framework.

Oeko-Institut also makes suggestions for a suitable strategy in foreign policy in this context. This strategy includes robust EU co-operation with China on environmental protection in mining and the implementation of general EU efforts to realise the sustainable production of rare earths. Since it will take several years for all the technical, economic and legal requirements to be developed for a successful recycling scheme, the work should begin now.

For the first time all available information on the mining of rare earths including the associated (mostly negative) environmental aspects, import and export data, different applications and price development are systematically provided in this study.

"Up to now the low prices of raw materials have not provided any sort of incentive for careful use of valuable raw materials”, says Dr. Schüler. “But today we have huge price increases and restricted export from China – a development which has led to a desperate search for new mines.” The mining of rare earths often causes serious environmental impacts if adequate precautions are not taken to comply with high environmental standards. Nearly all deposits contain radioactive minerals, which leave residues in further processing.

The mining of rare earths in China has already led to high environmental damage and the development of disease in the case of workers and local residents. The Chinese government has reacted to these circumstances and imposed corresponding environmental requirements.

Additional information on rare earths

Rare earths are a group of chemical elements which constitute important raw materials in green technologies such as hybrid vehicles, wind turbines, energy efficient lamps and catalysts. More than 95% of rare earths are currently produced in China. The rapid pace of technology development in recent years and the current Chinese export restrictions have resulted in significant price increases. Furthermore, the forecasts for 2014 analysed in this study have shown that there will be a shortage of supply in the case of around seven rare earth elements (dysprosium, europium, lanthanum, neodymium, praseodymium, terbium, yttrium).

The direct substitution of rare earths by other substances is often not possible. Instead, there has to be a switch to other technologies. For some applications such as wind turbines, alternative methods are available. For other sectors such as energy efficient lighting or catalysts, no equivalent substitutions are available in the short term.

Here you will find the study “Study on Rare Earths and Their Recycling“ for download: www.oeko.de/oekodoc/1112/2011-003-en.pdf

Comprehensive background information on rare earths can be found in our background paper, which can be downloaded at www.oeko.de/rare_earths and www.resourcefever.org.

Contact:

Dr. Doris Schüler
Researcher Infrastructure & Enterprises Division
Oeko-Institut e.V., Darmstadt Office Germany
Phone: +49 (0)6151 8191 127
E-mail: d.schueler@oeko.de