The Solution >> Recycling >> Future Prospects

 Recycling: Future Prospects

Though recycling strategic materials may seem impractical today due to relatively high energy and financial costs, new technologies and systems will make it a viable source for these elements in the long term.


Improving the efficiency of strategic element recycling is critical to stabilizing the supply of these materials. Mission 2016 suggests a combination of improved product design to facilitate the retrieval of strategic elements and improved element-retrieval technology for existing products. These improvements will be achieved through extensive research and development and implemented using government incentives and regulation.

Research and development to increase efficiency

Currently, retrieving and recycling many strategic elements is a complex and energy-intensive process (Schuler et al, 2011). Although small consumer electronic devices are one of the largest applications of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) such as neodymium and dysprosium, recovering these elements in an economically viable way is challenging because the metals are present only in trace concentrations (less than 1%). Additionally, strategic elements are often used in the form of alloys, making it difficult to retrieve an element of interest in its pure form ("Recycling: Rarely so Critical"). In order to overcome these issues, the first step of Mission 2016's plan involves extensive research and development of recyclable products and recycling techniques.

Japan is a good model for governments and organizations to emulate to stimulate recycling research for strategic materials. In an attempt to reduce its dependence on foreign imports, Japan has become a leading investor in recycling research. Currently, Japan uses 600 tonnes of REEs annually, mostly sourced from China (Clenfield, 2010). Through the improvement of recycling techniques, Japan expects to cut their annual demand for dysprosium by 200 tons and their demand for neodymium by 1,000 tons in two years ("Japan offers $65m," 2012).

As part of this initiative, Hitachi is researching environmentally friendly processes to separate metals from plastics and processes to extract the rare earths from specific alloys in small electronic devices in a cost-effective manner. They have already developed new machinery to separate and collect REEs from hard disk drives that allows for 100 units to be disassembled per hour as compared to the 12 units per hour that can be disassembled manually (Schuler et al, 2011). Other countries would benefit from following Japan's example of developing improved recycling machinery and encouraging manufacturers to install recycling facilities for strategic minerals ("Japan Offers").

Mission 2016 proposes that the United Nations, in collaboration with individual countries, follow Japan's example and fund research within countries to develop technologies that efficiently extract strategic elements from products and product designs that provide easier access to these metals during recycling. As illustrated by Japan, government funding research enables countries to break their dependence on primary producers of elements. If the UN helps support this method on a larger scale by working with individual countries, more nations can provide for their own strategic resource needs. Plans for such collaboration is already being considered. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might work with the United Nations to fund for research on electronic recycling ("Rare Earth Elements").

Research has already improved existing recycling techniques; bioleaching is used to extract precious metals from rare earth magnets. Recent improvements in bioleaching methods using microscopic organisms has resulted in an increased recovery rate and metal ion adsorption during the recycling process. This new method of separation is more efficient since it can separate metals more quickly, expanding the lower bound in concentration that is economic to extract from (Kuroda & Ueda, 2010). More details can be found at recycling overview page.

The U.S. Department of Energy is also conducting successful research. The Ames Laboratory developed a way to extract neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium from magnet scrap. In this case, they added molten magnesium to metal scrap to separate the REEs from the other metals. Then they boiled off the magnesium, leaving just the elements they wanted. The process is successful in that the rare earth material retain their material properties. However, it still needs further refinement and testing on an industrial scale (Mick, 2012).

Mission 2016's proposed recycling plan will focus research and development on technologies that can provide a reliable, economical source for strategic minerals. Not all technologies are common enough or contain enough accessible material to be viable sources of goal elements.
However, many common products contain economically recyclable concentrations of strategic elements: fluorescent lights, hard disks, car batteries, catalytic converters, and solar panels are all examples of products that can be profitably recycled.

A key component to improved recycling efficiency is improving product design to facilitate the removal of strategic elements during recycling. Hybrid cars, which commonly contain up to 25 pounds of REEs, show potential to easily implement these designs ("Rare Earth Elements 101"). Some companies, such as Toyota, have already started incorporating designs in their vehicles ("Specific Contents of Efforts").

Incentives/regulations to integrate recycling into supply chain

Mission 2016's proposed plan requires governments to enact laws that require manufacturers to recycle their products by building their own recycling facilities or paying established recycling centers to recycle for them. By recycling their own electronics, countries will have a new source of strategic elements without having to buy mined metals from other countries.

Germany has established a similar system with other recyclable products. After the German federal government passed the Waste Management Act because of the large number of landfills (50 000), glass and bottle manufacturers were required to recycle all of their waste and it became mandatory to have recycling collection stations in every jurisdiction. The laws were then expanded to require other materials and appliances to be recycled by the manufacturers themselves. The recycling system was so effective that by 2009, Germany was recycling 70% of its waste. By following an implementation process similar to that of Germany, other nations can establish an effective recycling system (Look, 2009).

In our proposed system, governments will be responsible for enacting laws requiring manufacturers to recycle their products, similar to the laws in Germany. If required to recycle, manufacturers could incorporate recycling facilities in their manufacturing facility rather than shipping their waste to off site recycling facilities. Recycling on site is more economically beneficial than recycling at another site because of transportation costs and fees that companies would have to pay to recycling facilities.

Once companies have functioning recycling programs, incentives to pressure consumers to return their products are necessary. The incentives can be discounts on new products when they return their old products.

Mission 2016's proposal is to install regulations not only on the quantity of electronic devices recycled but also on the design of these devices to make them more easily recyclable. These regulations would be enforced internationally. An example of such regulations is the policy currently enforced in the European Union that makes companies responsible for regulating the quality of the metal scraps produced.

In the EU, electronic waste is expected to rise by 2 million tons between now and 2020 (10 million tons to 12 million tons). In response to this, on June 2012, the EU enacted the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive requiring member states to collect 45 percent of electronic goods put on sale in the previous three years by 2016 and between 65 and 85 percent by 2019. If enforced, this policy would ensure the collection of 10 million tonnes (20 kg per capita) annually by 2020, a significant improvement from the current required collection rate of 4 kg per person or 2 million tonnes annually (BBC, 2012).


Although it would be helpful for private companies to recycle of their own initiative, it cannot reasonably be expected, especially given the current costs of recycling and the large investment necessary to build facilities. Solvay, a technology and chemical company, invested 19.3m USD to build two recycling facilities in France (Patel, 2012). Other companies would need to invest a similar amount. For this to happen, a large contribution from governments and international organizations is needed.

The most important requirement at this point is funding for research. Only by sufficiently lowering the cost of recycling can we expect it to become common practice for the private sector to recycle on a regular basis. This funding would ideally come from international organizations such as the UN, but contributions from individual governments would be helpful. The US Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2011, if passed, will provide for 1,500,000 USD to be invested in recycling research each fiscal year from 2011 to 2016 (Murowski, 2011). Although at this point this policy is unlikely to be enacted, similar initiatives should be encouraged in the United States and in other developed countries. Japan has invested over 1.2 billion USD into recycling through their own research projects and through private companies such as Hitachi. Another way that governments and international organizations can contribute is by providing incentives to encourage the private sector to recycle or by enforcing recycling standards. Modeling the system of incentive in place for soda cans (10 cent deposit returned to you if you recycle) could provide a partial refund for returned used computers and other devices. Many companies already do this; for example, HP implements this policy on any HP product ever made, HP then recycles or refurbishes the product and sells it. Despite the monetary investment necessary, recycling provides long-term profit and sustainability well worth the cost considering the depleting supply of strategic metals.

Timeline and Projected Effects

Timeline and Projected Effects

2013 U.S. passes bill to fund research and development of recycling technology (it was referred to a committee on May 26, 2011)
2014 new WEEE directive rules become law ("EU Passes WEEE Recast")
2015 companies that have already started research and development will start using recycling facilities (~4 facilities)
2016 Germany recycles 10% of REEs
2020 the EU collects 10 million tons of electronic waste to recycle ("EU Passes WEEE Recast") 2030 all manufacturers should have a stable recycling program implemented in their factories
2040 manufacturers have established recycling programs that follow established regulations in facilities located in underdeveloped nations
2045 new technologies that are easier to recycle have been developed
2050 recycling process reduces amount of landfills and the size of landfills still in use

By inspection of the recycling data shown in "Platinum Supply and Demand," if the trend from the past seven years continues, the amount of platinum recycled will increase significantly in the next ten years. It could increase by almost 50 percent to about 60 tonnes per year.

Solvay, the company previously mentioned, spent two years researching and developing to prepare for the project. Then they spent two years studying the industry and selecting good sites before they finished their project ("Solvay Launches", 2012). Therefore, it should take companies that have started researching and developing such as Honda about three or four years to get their recycling facilities going. Companies that haven't started would require four to five years once they start the research and development phase.



Fluorescent lights are good examples of recyclable products to focus on. 10 percent of fluorescent bulbs are made up of rare earth elements and phosphors such as europium, terbium, lanthanum, cerium, and yttrium (Schuler et al, 2011; Rare Earth Elements 101). The REEs used in phosphors in fluorescent lights account for 32 percent of the economic value of REEs worldwide (Schuler et al, 2011).

Hard Disks and Compressors

Other quintessential examples of sources for recyclable REEs are hard disks and compressors. Around 5.9 g of Nd are present per hard disk. Owing to the previously mentioned developments of Hitachi, the valuable elements can be collected from 100 hard disk units per hour (Schuler et al, 2011). Compressors are similarly valuable. One quarter of magnets in air conditioning compressors, for example, are composed of rare earth metal. In addition, Hitachi's machinery should be used for compressors (Clenfield, 2010).


Other final goods that should be focused on for recycling are nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) car batteries from which lanthanum and cerium are recoverable. Honda is researching new technologies to recycle components of Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV) which contain 20-25 pounds of rare earth metals. In cooperation with Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., Ltd., Honda has developed a method for extracting about 80 percent of the rare earth minerals from the Ni-MH batteries with the same purity as those extracted from mines (Wray, 2012). More research has to be conducted by companies funded by the government, similar to the process in Japan. Although Japan is the most in need of recycling technologies and new sources, other countries could also use recycling as a source of REEs. The most recent recycling technology for batteries is a hydrometallurgical process to recover rare earth elements from the slag of the pyro-metallurgical treatment of used Ni- MH batteries through leaching with sulfuric acid that was developed by researchers in Germany. This process has a 95 percent recovery rate (Schuler et al, 2011).


Catalysts are other good sources for strategic materials, such as platinum group metals. REEs make up 2 percent of catalysts, which means they account for 12,000 tons of recyclable REEs (Schuler et al, 2011). Catalysts are good potential sources for strategic materials because there is a very high collection rate (almost 100 percent). Catalysts are already being recycled for recovery of platinum group elements. 38.1 tonnes of platinum were recycled from autocatalysts in 2011 ("Platinum Supply and Demand," 2012). However, REEs are not usually recycled from catalysts, so in the future, recycling facilities should recover rare earth elements from catalysts.

Magnet scrap

Magnet scrap could also be effectively recycled for strategic elements. In the production of magnets, 20 to 30 percent of the metals used are ultimately scrapped. No company currently recovers these wasted metals. There are several possible methods for recovering these metals such as remelting the scraps, which unfortunately has a very low yield. One could also recover the rare earth elements as oxides but they would be of low grade and not worth the cost of recycling. It is perhaps more economically feasible to use selective extracting agents to selectively recover elements of higher value. For example Dy2O3 can be recovered to an extent of 99% by this method and the recovery rate of Nd2O3 is over 82% when using Na2SO4 double-salt precipitation and oxalate secondary precipitation. Other possible methods include electrical reduction by use of P5O7 extraction with very promising test results (Messenger, 2012). The potential of these methods to recover strategic metals is currently outweighed by the cost, but with more research the recovery rate of these methods could be improved and they could be economically feasible.

Green Energy Technology

There is also great potential for recycling clean energy technology apparati. The recycling of solar panels is currently very expensive and inefficient. Companies see it as a cost rather than a source of revenue. Current methods involve crushing and separating the metals that can save up to 90% of the glass and 95% of the semiconductor metals that contain cadmium and tellurium ("Recycling: Rarely so Critical"). Since solar panels typically last around 20 years, many used panels will soon be available for recycling. However, with the rise in price of REEs, and with additional research it could realistically become economically viable to recycle the elements in solar panels. The situation for the recycling of wind turbines is similar to that of solar panels. The elements that can be recovered are neodymium and dysprosium. Up to 350 kg of REEs can be recovered from a 1.5 MW wind turbine ("Recycling: Rarely so Critical").

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