Rare Earth Metals and the Importance of Reusing Technology

 

A worker pours rare earth metal Lanthanum into a mould near the town of Damao, in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Photograph: David Gray/REUTERS
A worker pours rare earth metal Lanthanum into a mould near the town of Damao, in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Photograph: David Gray/REUTERS

Without elements known as rare earth metals, our computers would still be the size of a classroom.

The 17 elements at the bottom of the periodic table known as rare earth metals possess properties necessary for making technology lighter, faster and smarter. Rare earth metals are used to make light bulbs, cell phones, electric cars, MRI machines, camera lenses, and other technology.

Although rare earth metals are critical in the technology we use every day, mining and processing these metals is extremely hazardous to the environment. It is important to reuse and recycle electronics in order to lessen the demand for these minerals.

Currently, 97% of rare earth elements are mined and processed in China, where environmental regulations are lenient and mining has led to environmental degradation. Most of the metals are extracted in open pit mines, which can release radiation, dust and metal into the environment.

Once metals are mined, they need to be refined and separated from ore material. This process requires large amounts of corrosive acids and carcinogenic toxins. Oftentimes, metals are laced with radioactive materials from the earth’s core, and the refining process releases these materials. Because of these factors, processing one ton of rare earth metals produces about 2,000 tons of toxic waste.

Toxic waste can enter air, ground and water around refining and mining sites. Once waste has been released into the environment, it is extremely hard to remove and can endanger all organisms in the area. Mining and refining have contaminated soil and water supplies of nearby communities, slowly poisoning residents and their livestock. Toxic mine runoff also threatens to seep into China’s Yellow River, a major supplier of drinking water for the northern provinces.

Although other nations have begun efforts to mine in a less toxic way, the mining process continues to be arduous and hazardous to the environment. It is important to lessen the demand on rare earth metals as much as possible to prevent more metals from being mined.

Although scientists are still researching ways to recycle rare earth metals, one way to reduce demand is reusing electronics. It is important to recycle old electronics as soon as possible to increase the likelihood that they can be refurbished.

By purchasing refurbished electronics, we can reuse technology, reducing the need to mine rare earth metals. At Tech Discounts, we sell quality refurbished and vintage electronics, allowing you to purchase quality electronics while reducing environmental impact and creating jobs for adults with barriers to employment.

Author

Theresa Purcell

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