The Solution >> Increasing Awareness >> Recycling Awareness

 Recycling Awareness

Promoting government-sponsored plans that educate the public and increase post-consumer recycling of strategic elements.


Based on the evidence set forth in the recycling overview and future prospects pages, it is clear why recycling is essential for preserving the current world supply of strategic elements and how this might be achieved. Beyond this understanding, how will the campaign for strategic element recycling become a reality? Monetary compensation gives the public an economic incentive to recycle the products that contain them and creates awareness. Plans implemented by the governments of more developed countries that act according to the following models will be most effective in recovering strategic elements:

Cash Deposits

Approximately 1.1 billion kilograms of plastic bottles are recycled every year ("," 2011), in part because people are offered money if they turn in their recyclables to deposit centers. A similar program could be created for easily disposable products that contain strategic elements. Light bulbs and hard drives are an excellent place to start. Compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs, of which 3-5% are currently recycled, contain trace amounts of bauxite, barite, lanthanum, yttrium, and tungsten (Ronhovde, 2010). Hard disks, of which 38% are currently recycled, contain neodymium magnets and trace amounts of cobalt (Hatch, 2011). For reference, if half of the United States' population turned in 1 CFL light bulb and 1 hard drive over the next decade for a .50 USD compensation, it would cost 150 million USD and would recover 500 metric tons of strategic elements (out of the 25,000 metric tons of combined recyclables). The reason why there are not reliable recycling programs in place for these items is because the general public is unaware that their light bulbs and hard drives contain valuable phosphors (rare earth and transition metal compounds). A cash deposit system not only creates a higher turnover for the strategic elements within these items, but it educates the public on how commonly strategic elements are found in commercial products and how easy it can be to recycle them.

Case Study: Cash for Hybrid Cars

The "Cash for Clunkers" program, executed by the US government and parts of the EU in 2009, was wildly successful in getting consumers to trade in old, inefficient cars for new, fuel-efficient ones. Occurring over 2 months and costing a total of 3 billion USD, it resulted in a significant net increase in average fuel economy as well as a boost to the struggling auto market. (Mays, 2011) Electric and hybrid vehicles contain a large amount of recoverable rare earth elements. The current Prius, which accounts for more than half of all hybrids on the road today, contains 10 kg of lanthanum, 1 kg of neodymium, and small quantities of dysprosium in every vehicle (Koerth-Baker). However, induction motor technology, which uses current run through coils of wire to generate magnetic fields rather than permanent magnets made of REEs like neodymium, are set to replace conventional electric motors in hybrids within the next couple years as REE prices continue to increase. Therefore, a program similar to "Cash for Clunkers" targeted at hybrids with REEs would yield a large amount of strategic elements through recovered hybrid car engines. Because hybrids make up approximately 2% of cars in the world ("Hybrids remain 2," 2012), a hybrid-specific program offering 3,000 to 4,500 USD rebates, like the original "Cash for Clunkers program, will cost much less than 3 billion USD and be capable of running much longer. Even if the use of hybrid cars increases over the next few centuries, as long as the total percentage of hybrid cars in the world stays under 5% this plan will be more affordable than the original "Cash for Clunkers" program. For reference, a year long program for under 500 million USD would be feasible for the US government. Assuming half of US hybrid car owners participate in this program it would recover 1.1 kilotons of neodymium ("U.s. energy information," 9). Although a smaller amount would be recovered if this program were implemented in other developed countries such as Germany or Japan due to a smaller number of hybrid vehicles, this program would still be cost-effective and help recover a significant amount of REEs. Any developed country with hybrids accounting for at least 1 percent of cars on the road a decade from now will be able to model a program like this. Public awareness would largely take care of itself as car dealerships advertise the government-sponsored rebate program to attract customers.

Private Industry Sponsorship

Some commercial products are more difficult to recycle than others. Refrigerators, with cooling systems that contain anywhere between 0.5 to 100 kg of neodymium alloy (Gschneidner Jr. & Pecharsky), are too large to drop off in a cash deposit center. Television sets, whose screens contain palladium and platinum phosphors, are also too inconvenient to recycle unless a more significant monetary compensation is provided. Cell phones, which contain trace amounts of neodymium, silver, palladium, lanthanum, and many others (Rare Earth Digest, 2010), are also difficult to recycle through government programs because they are too valuable to be recycled for less than 1 USD even though that is their value in recyclable rare earth elements. In these cases, private industries can much more efficiently deal with their customers than the government: the most effective plan for dealing with these commercial products is by acting through private industry. Mission 2016 proposes that governments offer incentives in some form, such as tax breaks, to private companies that take care of recovery of their own products. A simple example of this model would be for a cell phone company to offer a 10% discount on their newest generation products if they bring in an older generation phone. The cell phone company amasses large amounts of old generation phones and donates them to the government to qualify for a tax break. Why might private companies be in favor of offering such discounts? As long as the tax breaks are tailored to cover any losses, companies are guaranteed to break even if not make a profit. This model is also an excellent way for private companies to secure customer loyalty. In the case of the cell phone company, a customer is more likely to buy from Apple again if they are offered a discount on the iPhone 5 as opposed to buying a new Android phone. Of course, this plan is entirely dependent on which industries exist in each country and the power of the government to offer incentive to the private industry in a convincing way; while it may be effective in the US, it may not work as well in China. This also makes it difficult to estimate costs, as the tax breaks should be specific for each industry and for every country. However, this plan is feasible for Japan, the US, and many European countries; many companies already use such discounts as a marketing tool, and offering tax breaks is essentially the government subsidizing the old product, which also has precedent. Following this model would also take care of public awareness by placing it in the hands of private companies who already spend money on advertising.

Composting Incentives

Promoting phosphorus recycling is very different from promoting REE recycling, but equally important. Phosphorus recycling will mostly require participation from farms and urban waste management. A workable model would be for governments to offer some form of encouragement to farmers and waste management companies that create a certain amount of compost or set up composting systems. It is for the benefit of both the farmers and waste management companies to create fertilizer from this compost because they can then sell the fertilizer for a profit. Government encouragement can come in the form of tax breaks for farms or companies that produce and sell a certain amount of fertilizer. For example, the average Slovakian dairy farm has 190 cows, each of which produce approximately 0.03 metric tons of phosphate per year out of 20 metric tons of compostable material ("How much fertilizer,"). If the EU or the Slovakian government approved the quality of fertilizer being produced by farmers who could meet this quota and reselling their fertilizer, that farm could have 10% of their taxes returned for that fiscal period. Knowing that there are at least 15 dairy farms in Slovakia, this program would cost the EU 15,000 USD over the course of a year and yield 0.45 metric tons of recycled phosphorous ("Eu dairy farms," 2010).

The goal of all of these plans is not just to increase recovery of strategic elements, but more importantly to create a paradigm shift. A sustainable plan for the future is impossible unless
humanity takes it upon itself to start recycling- and many people are unaware that there are rare earth elements in the technology that has become so integrated in their lives. The creation of a recycling culture starts with a wake-up call about how rapidly our supply of strategic minerals is decreasing, and ends with governments following these plans and working together to recover as much as possible.

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