Science Matters: The Case of Rare Earth Elements



Table showing laptops and cellphones

Common electronics and modern technologies depend on rare earth elements.

Marvin Meyer

Rare earth elements are an invisible but integral part of our daily lives, but you know that the ethical consumption of products that use rare earths can be tricky. With the rare earths debate now front and center, there should be more transparency in the mining and production processes in order to aid the public and corporations in responsible decision making. The Sustainability Seal should advocate for that transparency as well as recycling and reuse of rare earth elements, and it should create incentives for scientific innovations that further those goals.

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 >>

Consumer Roles

Chief Merchandising Officer for a Large Electronics Retailer

An executive for a retail chain that is focused on avoiding consumer boycotts and making consumers feel good about their purchases.

U.S. Defense Department Official

An engineer with the Defense Logistics Agency who is concerned about the domestic supply of rare earths in the United States.

Chief Executive Officer of an Ethical Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Firm

An activist-turned-manufacturer who is deeply committed to sustainable practices, fair wages, and ethically sourced materials.

Ethical Consumer Journalist

A British magazine editor and investigative journalist who is interested in responsible consumerism and corporate transparency.

Technology Writer

A journalist known for reviewing the latest consumer electronics who once hosted a TV program about materials science.

Famous Inventor

A celebrity entrepreneur who needs rare earths for electric cars and is more interested in innovation than in restricting production practices.

Video Transcript

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

Support Recycling

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

If you’ve been following the news on rare earths or other elements that are really important for green technologies like lithium, for example, you’ve probably heard that demand is only expected to increase. Well, one of the things that drives demand is the fact that people can’t repair or easily recycle the technologies that they have or the vehicles or whatever that contain these things. And so the way we do things now is we buy a laptop, we buy a smartphone or an airplane or a wind turbine, and we use it until it breaks. And then chances are when it breaks or is damaged beyond repair, then we throw it away. And so when we throw away the airplane or the laptop, or we decommission the wind turbine, we’re throwing away tons of useful materials, rare earth elements, and otherwise. Imagine what we could do if we just recycled these things. So what can an individual do in relation to this? Well, individuals can support legislation and policy proposals to actually recycle our technologies. There’s a number of different programs around the country: if you break your phone or if you get a new computer, you can send it in to be recycled. But these are not widespread enough. What we need to see is a rare earth recycling program, or we could call it more broadly a technology metals recycling program, that looks a lot like how we recycle our bottles and cans and newspapers. And here I’m actually optimistic. You know, 40, 50 years ago, people thought it would be too much trouble to recycle our bottles and cans, but guess what? Now it’s normal. We can do the same thing with rare earths. 

Restore the Right to Repair

Julie Klinger (continued):

The other thing I would propose, and there’s a lot of really good work already under way with this, is we could support initiatives to give, to grant people or to restore the right to repair. So it seems like a no-brainer that a person should be able to repair a thing they own. Right? Whether that thing is a tractor or a laptop. But our right to repair things has steadily eroded over time. But there’s a number of groups around the country that have already advanced policy proposals to restore this right to consumers. And if you’re one person and you’re wondering what you can do to help make our rare earth supply chain more sustainable, you can support right-to-repair legislation as well. 

Become Informed Consumers

Eric Schelter (Director, Center for the Sustainable Separations of Metals):

One of the things that they can do is really become informed and aware of the materials and the elements that go into the technology that they use on a regular basis. That’s the first step. And this information is available. You can find it pretty well online. And a number of technology companies also put out environmental sustainability reports where they talk about the sourcing of the materials that go into their technology. So I would say becoming informed and aware, and part of this is also asking questions of the technology companies. What are the metals that go into these products? And where are they coming from and how are they sourced? 

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: "Camp" by Podington Bear
(c) 2020 Science History Institute