Your cell phone contains rare earth metals
Global Rare Earth Elements News
Tuesday, 07 December 2010 16:00

An average gold mine produces a mere 5 grams of gold per ton of rock, sometimes less depending on the local geology. The same amount of recycled cell phones may contain near 200 grams of the precious metal. A ton of used cellphones is likely to contain well over 100 kilograms of copper, also a valuable resource and 3 kilograms of silver. Importantly, they contain strategic metals known as rare earth elements. Rare earths have been making news due to reduced exports from China. One Toyota Prius from Japan uses about 29 pounds of rare metals. That would be over 13,000 grams.

But before you consider ditching the sleek new technologies (your iPod® also needs rare earth materials), consider that some conventional motors contain rare earth components—up to half the amount in a Prius. Many other electronics contain fairly abundant quantities of precious and rare metals.

In Recycled Cell Phones—A Treasure Trove of Valuable Metals, a July 2006 fact sheet, the USGS reports that "About 130 million cell phones are retired annually in the United States (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2005). Collectively, these cell phones weigh about 14,000 metric tons...annually retired cell phones contain almost 2,100 metric tons of copper, 46 metric tons of silver, 3.9 metric tons of gold, 2 metric tons of palladium, and 0.04 metric ton of platinum."

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), has been calling for a global drive to recycle rare earth metals. At the United Nations in New York last May, he stated that it is two- to ten-times more efficient to recycle a metal than to mine it. He mentions that 50% of the world's iron is recycled because there is a market for it. The same could happen for rare metals he suggests.

While government agencies, in Germany, Japan, and the U.S. are developing rare metal recycling methods, most industry experts agree that it will take time for recycling efforts to pay off on an industrial scale. While that reality has caused concerns in the markets because of China's status as the dominant exporter, each of the 17 elements are subject to their own supply and demand curve. Moreover, the U.S., with near 100% reliance on imported rare earths, did not look solely to China for rare earths. The USGS reported that in 2007, the U.S. also secured the rare minerals from Austria, France, Japan, and Russia. Many other countries provide diverse portfolios of other minerals to the U.S., including Australia, Canada, and South Africa.


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