E-waste is an untapped source of rare earth materials

As the world grapples with supply chain issues and geopolitical concerns disrupt the timely flow of materials, it is increasingly clear that the supply of many rare earth metals and materials is unsustainable. These materials are found in all types of products, including those we discard every day. E-waste is an excellent source of precious metals, and e-waste recycling needs to be dramatically increased.

The Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK (via bbc.com) is running a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the unsustainability of mining the materials that make up all countless millions of pieces of consumer technology. These metals and materials often end up in landfills, creating potentially toxic contaminants. But these wastes are also an untapped resource of the very materials that are used to produce them, hence the need for recycling.

Professor Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said that “our technology consumption habits remain highly unsustainable and have left us at risk of running out of the raw elements we need” while “continuing to exacerbate environmental damage”. . According to a study cited by the BBC, the total amount of electronics discarded in the world was 57 million tonnes in 2021 alone and growing at a rate of two million tonnes per year.

Some examples of materials that are at risk of depletion in the coming decades include gallium, indium, yttrium and tantalum. They are used in everything from medical devices to semiconductors, batteries and solar panels. These are just a few examples of the things we take for granted and are products that will only increase demand. It goes without saying that the provision of these materials is critical to ensuring a sustainable future society free of fossil fuels.

The need for sustainable manufacturing is also becoming increasingly evident. Elizabeth Ratcliffe of the Royal Society of Chemistry said BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science that there is an untapped ‘mine’ of precious metals in the drawers and storage of almost every home.”

Many consumers don’t know what to do with their old devices. Many end up in landfills, but if there were a global effort to make recycling old devices easier, many people would certainly make use of the option. Things like drop-off boxes or e-waste recycling centers would have the dual effect of reducing potentially toxic landfills while also providing companies with alternative sources of finite precious metals.

The war in Ukraine highlights just how fragile supply chains are. The supply of nickel, a valuable component of vehicle batteries, is experiencing a supply crisis as Ukrainian production stalls. Neon supplies were also affected. But what if you could extract nickel from discarded batteries? It looks like there is an opportunity for companies to acquire materials that are only going to get rarer and more expensive to mine.

As technology consumers, we can also do our part. Next time you upgrade your phone or buy a new PC component, think about how you can recycle your old one instead of just throwing it in the trash. You’d be doing the planet a favor, as well as contributing to sustainable manufacturing that could lead directly to more affordable products in the years to come, thanks to the better availability of the material it’s made from. Win win.

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