Science Matters: The Case of Rare Earth Elements



Demonstrators in Kuala Lumpur

Demonstrators in Kuala Lumpur protest plans to process rare earth elements in the region because of concerns about radioactive by-product waste.

Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

You recognize the important role played by rare earth elements in the global economic infrastructure but are concerned that the costs may outweigh the benefits. In negotiations your concerns are primarily focused on the people most affected by the mining and production of rare earths: communities polluted by rare earths waste disposal and miners employed in unfair working conditions. Solutions that rely on recycling and responsible waste handling are essential to moving forward.

Read the Guiding Values and your group’s Goals and Recommendations for the final Sustainability Seal, and use them to prepare answers to the following questions, which the Stewards will ask during the Summit:

  1. The mining and production of rare earth elements can result in intense and long-lasting water and soil pollution, yet these elements are in high demand for countless modern technologies. Are there truly sustainable methods for mining and using rare earth elements? How can cleaner but more costly forms of production compete with cheaper mining operations and illegal smuggling? Who in the production cycle of rare earths should bear the burden of evaluating and minimizing environmental impact?

  2. Great strides have been made in the effort to efficiently recycle rare earth elements, but the science behind these technologies is still being tested and existing methods are not widely implemented. Is it possible to prioritize recycling and reuse in the demand for rare earths? What is the most effective way to create incentives for recycling and reuse to reduce new production?

  3. The goal of this Summit is to create a Sustainability Seal for the mining, production, and use of rare earth elements. What are the critical factors that must be addressed when discussing the sustainability of rare earths? What are the biggest obstacles to making rare earth elements a sustainable resource? What new problems might result from the creation of this seal?

  4. What historical examples and evidence provide useful lessons about the successes or failures of addressing the impact and implications of our use of rare earth elements?

  5. Do the problems caused by our use of rare earth elements outweigh the benefits that they provide?

View transcript >>

Activist Roles

Spokesperson for an Indigenous Rights Organization in Brazil

A representative for a group that has long called for indigenous people to have the right to mine their own lands sustainably but that now needs international support against external mining companies.

Environmental Activist Based in Eastern California

A community college professor who is volunteering with a group pushing for more sustainable mining practices that reduce water pollution and work with local residents.

Environmental Activist Based in China

An investigative journalist who seeks to reduce pollution from Chinese manufacturing by stimulating concern among western consumers.

Environmental Activist Based in Malaysia

The founder of a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable development but is concerned about radioactive waste from rare earth separations.

Environmentalist with an American Climate-Change Organization

A climate educator who is sympathetic about local pollution but most concerned with ensuring enough rare earth metals are produced to build low-carbon energy technologies.

Executive Director of a Prominent International Environmental Advocacy Organization

The leader of an environmental organization that is famous for direct action, who is uncertain about supporting yet another sustainability certification.

Video Transcript

What can we do as citizens to make the rare earth economy more sustainable?

Julie Klinger (Associate Director, Land Use and Livelihoods Initiative, Global Development Policy Center): 

Because rare earth mining is dirty and dangerous, historically we’ve located mines far away from major population centers. Right? You wouldn’t want to open up a rare earth mine in the middle of San Francisco or Shanghai. Certainly not. But just because rare earth mines have historically been located in far-off frontier regions doesn’t mean that these places aren’t important, particularly to the people who live there. Right? So we need to get out of this sort of 20th-century mindset, that the only way that we can get the materials we need is if we dig new holes in the ground, if we force someone to sacrifice, if we force a people to give up a landscape they love. So to put that really briefly, let’s account for the carbon of our global rare earth supply chain when we think about reorganizing it and be intentional about how we change our geographies of production. The second thing is to reduce demand by reducing waste. This is a really easy thing that we can do. And the third thing is to be aware of where the raw materials come from and to make sure that we, either as consumers letting companies know or as citizens working with our lawmakers, make sure that we’re not sourcing rare earth elements or other technology metals in a way that destroys landscapes and lives in other parts of the world. 

So I think if we want to produce a more sustainable rare earth industry, we can have the greatest impact if we act, if we recognize our responsibility as citizens, as citizens of this country or whatever your home country is, and also citizens of the world. And by that I mean we participate in the policymaking process, and we get in touch with our elected representatives, and we tell them what our values are, and we tell them what values we’d like them to represent when they’re discussing policy or making laws. That’s a really important thing that we can do. Because one of the biggest challenges to greening our rare earth supply chain, you know, over the past 10, 15 years has been the fact that we haven’t created a supportive policy environment. Right? So if a company wants to do the right thing, or if a mine wants to invest in mining more sustainably, or if a consumer wants to actually repair something that they own, it’s really difficult for them to do that because we haven’t created a social and economic context in which we can do that. Instead, what we have is—no, instead, what we have is actually a market situation where the cheapest producer wins. And also the incentive is for companies to sell as much as they can, as many products as they can. And here’s the thing, those rules didn’t come from nowhere, right? These are rules that citizens, governments decided to implement and enforce, and we can change them.

Credits: The Rare Earth Elements Project is made possible by a generous grant from Roy Eddleman, founder of Spectrum LifeSciences.
Illustrations and animations: Claud Li
Music: "Pythagorean Theorem" by Podington Bear
(c) 2020 Science History Institute