Co-Editor of our sister site MetalMiner Stuart Burns was recently interviewed on American Public Media's Marketplace about the concept of "urban mining," that is, looking to our own high-tech leftovers to recycle the rare earth metals within them.
"The world has awoken to the importance of rare earth metals and the power of the Chinese monopoly over the market," says this article in the International Business Times. Though China maintains the position that they will not limit their exports of rare earths, concerns remain. And we in the supply chain world know what happens when there's a threat of supply risk or shortage: we look for new or different ways of getting the material.
Those new and different ways may be sitting in your junk drawer in the form of cell phones of genres past. Burns states in the Marketplace piece, "There was something in excess of 500 million mobile phones being sold around the world, and when you look at how much each one weighs, that's equivalent to about 50,000 tons of mobile phones." Combined with laptops, desktops, and other electronics: that's a lot of rare earth metal ripe for Recycling. According to the piece, companies like Toyota are even providing a phone number for consumers to call should they elect to recycle the batteries in cars like the Prius.
We've got two things to add to this discussion. One, the general public also needs to stop dropping valuable resources into general landmines and realize that old electronics are actually worth something. Two, the technology for recycling isn't quite yet up to par. Burns quotes, "The technologies for recycling rare earths are still in their infancy." But, if rare earth prices keep rising, basic economics tells us that financial incentive will drive a response, hopefully in the form of R&D in rare earth recycling.
Take a few moments to listen to the story. It's an interesting lesson in supply alternatives and putting "junk" to good use. See coverage over on MetalMiner as well.