How an Asian Diplomatic Spat Helps Recycling

Depending on whom you believe, China is either reducing its exports of rare earths so it can use its supplies in its own products, or it has cut off the supply of rare earths to Japan to improve its position in territorial disputes over islands. Japan is panicking because it needs certain rare earths to make engines for hybrid cars and computer screens.

The Japanese are not the only people who are worried. There’s been a flurry of activity lately in the field of rare earth mining, with governments turning to Vietnam, Kazakhstan, and other countries to diversify their supplies.

Happily, however, the Japanese have remembered their supplies of used electronics, which contain up to 300,000 tons of rare earths that can be recovered through “urban mining,” otherwise known as recycling.  (Source: “Japan Recycles Minerals from Used Electronics,” Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, October 4, 2010.) That tonnage sounds like a lot, but China’s reserves dwarf it; the 300,000 tons would simply protect Japanese manufacturers from market forces.

Best of all:

Japan is also pushing for new manufacturing processes that do not require rare earths. Last week, the government-affiliated New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, or N.E.D.O., announced that it had developed a motor for hybrid vehicles that used cheap and readily available ferrite magnets, instead of the rare earth magnets typically required.

Hitachi Metals, meanwhile, is working on a magnet that minimizes the use of rare earths by employing copper alloys. (Source: same as above. See also “Nations Wary of Dependence on China’s Rare Earths,” Tomoko A. Hosaka, Associated Press, October 4, 2010.)

How Is This Restoration?

If nations’ unease at depending on China for rare earths increases recycling of electronics, that is wonderful. If somehow it led to all electronics being recycled, that would be amazing, especially if countries like the United States started hoarding their electronics for future recycling—as far as I know, most old electronics are shipped to China, where they are beaten apart with no disregard for best practices or the pollution such methods cause.

If the price of rare earths rose so much that it became economical to open old landfills and pull out the electronics, I would faint from joy (as long as all the other stuff in the landfills was reused too, or at least rendered inert).

And if manufacturers discovered how to make computers and hybrid cars and suchlike from renewable resources, I would die and go to heaven.

Why? Because then we wouldn’t have to mine for rare earths. That means some lands would remain undisturbed.