Rare earth metals are often used. They are found, among other things, in magnets for wind turbines, heat pumps, electric motors and hard drives. However, they are only extracted in a few countries and production can cause social and environmental damage. Raimund Bleischwitz, an expert in environmental and resource economics and scientific director of the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research, explains how circular economy could defuse the problem in a current comment in Nature – and in the TR interview.
Mr. Bleischwitz, geologically, rare earths are not that rare. Where is the problem?
This is primarily a geopolitical question. Rare earths can be found in many countries, but only in very, very small concentrations. Winning them is time-consuming and expensive. Companies in the industry must therefore be financially strong and also have stamina because prices fluctuate greatly. This has broken the neck of some mines financially over the past 20 years. China has dominated the market for years.
Prof. Dr. Raimund Bleischwitz, expert for circular economy at the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT)
(Image: Jan Meier, Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT))
“The amounts of rare earths required are only part of the problem”
How big is the demand for rare earth metals?
Demand is increasing a lot right now. Global consumption of these elements is expected to increase to 315,000 tons in 2031. That’s five times what it was in 2005. And volumes are only part of the problem. The other is that the substances are often mined under questionable conditions, for example under the military dictatorship in Myanmar. In addition, toxic and radioactive waste and toxic waste water are produced during production. To speak of a clean energy transition on the one hand, but to use dirty raw materials for it: That is a contradiction that should be addressed again and again.
And the circular economy can be a solution?
It can be part of the solution. The substances are already here because they are in many products. And if you get the rare earths out of there again, then it should be possible to go beyond the current recycling rate of one percent and approach the 15 percent that the EU proposes in a report on critical raw materials. In the longer term, perhaps even 50 percent could be achieved. But we are still far, far away from that.
How could we get there?
The collection of end devices must be mandatory and collection points must be created. And then it is important to start where the proportion of rare earths is slightly higher than in other products and to recover the rare earths with suitable processes.
Recover rare earths from hard drives
Which products do you mean?
All products that have magnets in them: loudspeakers and other electronic products, for example, the motors of wind turbines that have to be dismantled anyway, and computer hard drives that are collected but for which there is still little systematic recovery. Google once reported an estimate that up to five percent of the rare earths used in hard drives could be recovered. The company then also made internal efforts to make this recovery. Interest in recycling also comes from industry.
And how could this interest be used?
Public authorities should develop obligations and concepts for collection points or leasing business models for devices together with the companies. That would be a classic win-win situation. Of course, win-win doesn’t mean that it doesn’t cost anything. The future market for secondary raw materials only works through investments. The recovery of rare earths is currently much less profitable than the recycling of other raw materials such as steel or copper, which are in much larger quantities in the products. The market must therefore be designed in such a way that the recycling of these metals cross-finances the recovery of the rare earths. Municipalities, on the other hand, face completely different problems. You have to get citizens to bring back devices that are often still lying dormant in drawers, closets or sheds.
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