China announced this past December it will curtail its 2011 export quota for rare earths by 35%.
See for example, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/12/29/us-china-rareearth-idUSTRE6BR0KX20101229
What are "rare earths", and why should the Sustainability Community care?
Rare earths are a group of seventeen elements that are essential in the production of a wide variety of electrical components and clean energy technologies. They are found in Group 3 of the periodic table, and have names like gallium, europium, samarium, and thorium. These rare earths are used in the manufacture of iPods, flat-screen TV's and computer monitors, high performance magnets, wind turbines, and a wide range of other consumer and industrial electronics.
China currently supplies 97% of the worlds annual rare earth demand. The U.S. doesn't have a single active rare earth mine in production though we do have significant deposits that could be mined. China's actions have some of the U.S.'s top strategic planners so worried, the U.S. has threatened action with the World Trade Organization to force China to loosen it's grip on this strategic material.
What's all this have to do with electronic waste or "e-waste"?
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ( http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/ecycling/docs/fact7-08.pdf ), the U.S. discarded 1.5 – 1.8 million TONS of electronic waste in our landfills in 2005. During that same year, we recycled less than 380,000 tons of surplus electronics. The problem: as these discarded materials breakdown in the landfill, they release their stores of lead, mercury and other hazardous ingredients into the environment,
A typical personal computer contains economically recoverable quantities of gold, silver, copper, and palladium, and there are a number of firms that specialize in recovering these materials. But what about the rare earths? These electronics also contain significant quantities of rare earths – although at considerably lower concentrations that the aforementioned precious metals. Well, it appears economically-competitive methods for recovering rare earths from e-waste are just becoming available. According to press reports, Dowa, a Japanese mining company, recently began recovering rare earths from e-waste. Research continues on many fronts, and major improvements are needed if these rare earth recovery technologies are to be widely deployed. See for example:
So here we see another strategic sustainability issue buried in today's headlines. Rare earths are essential strategic materials for our national and energy security. China has the world market cornered. The U.S. (and the rest of the world) is annually discarding a mother-load of these materials and creating a significant environmental hazard in the process. What's wrong with this picture?
Though I can't go into the details here, there are a variety of interesting options for improving this picture and a number of provocative questions one can ask. Why isn't the U.S. mining our own resources? What are the most promising avenues of research into improved rare earth recovery technologies? How can we reduce our dependence on rare earths? What can we do to move away from our "throw-away" consumer electronics culture? How would massive "cloud computing" paradigms influence the production and generation of e-waste?
President Obama announced a new E-Waste Task Force in November to tackle some of the problems I mention here:
Let's wish them luck. We all have a stake in their success.