Science Matters: The Case of Rare Earth Elements



Chemical abbreviations for 17 rare earth elements

The chemical abbreviations for the 17 rare earth elements.

Thibault Renard

The goal of the Stewardship Council is to create a Sustainability Seal for the mining, production, and use of rare earth elements. Experts in various fields have been invited to weigh in on what this seal should include. You have released a draft of the Guiding Values, and now you will hear feedback from stakeholders on all sides. You will listen to their arguments and select the Guiding Values that are most practical and effective.

Carefully read the Rare Earth Sustainability Seal Guiding Values, which you have released for public comment, so you can identify the changes proposed by each group and address their concerns and suggestions. Then review the following questions, which you will ask each group during the Summit before developing questions of your own:

  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?

Steward Roles

President of a Market-Oriented Environmental Nongovernmental Organization

An environmental advocate who leads a group that uses corporate partnerships and the pursuit of profit to solve serious environmental problems.

Executive Director of a Wildlife-Focused Environmental Advocacy Organization

An environmental advocate who leads an organization with long experience in establishing sustainability seals.

Social Scientist

A geography professor who has researched the global rare earth industry through fieldwork in China and Brazil.


An academic chemist interested in “green chemistry” who develops new approaches to producing the rare earth elements.

Environmental Engineer

An expert in measuring the environmental impacts of materials using the technique of life-cycle analysis.

Materials Scientist

A retired metallurgist who has led a national lab and advised a range of stakeholders about rare earth issues.