How to build a circular economy for rare-earth elements

Rare-earth elements (REE) that are crucial for clean-energy technologies are jealously fought over. Policies and programmes to encourage recycling and recovery could reduce tensions. Here we propose a research perspective on a circular economy for REE with three pillars.
Published in Sustainability

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REE are key ingredients to clean energy technologies - without them, wind energy, solar cells and electric motors would perform significantly less good. Yet their availability is limited. China, the United States and Russia control 56% of global REE reserves and 76% of their production. There is a geopolitical race to control REE resources and for countries to squeeze other nations out. The current REE market is a ‘zero sum’ game, in which one nation’s or company’s gain is another’s loss, with no net benefit.

However, markets in REEs are dispersed and inefficient, and the supply chain is pretty harmful to the environment. To meet soaring demand without damaging the environment, the whole REE industry needs to be rethought. In our view, this can be done — without winners and losers — by building win–win alliances and a global circular economy for REEs.

Here are three priorities: (i) Boost REE recycling globally, (ii) Invest to recover and trace REEs, (iii) Rework REE supply chains. They are described in more detail in our article in 'Nature'. 

Global collaboration might not be as difficult as imagined. China might find it attractive to stop smuggled REEs coming in from Myanmar. Collaboration between China, the EU, the United States and other nations could be fostered by constructing an international REE database with forecasts, developing fair trade of REEs and other standards. Such collaboration could rekindle international trade and broaden global partnerships on energy transitions, with REE projects being funded via climate finance. Circular-economy policies and practices can mitigate concerns about REEs and erode the zero-sum mentality.

This paper has been the result of intense discussions among three distinct scholars - I'm immensely grateful for debating with GENG Yong from Shanghai Jiatong University and his expertise on environmental science and engineering, Joseph Sarkis from Worcester Polytechnic Institute USA and his knowledge on business and supply chains, and manifold feedback from the 'Nature' editorial team. Without their queries and comments our paper would have looked much different, for sure, and probably less relevant. 

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