I know that this rather goes against the tenor of our times but the Department of Defense has just made an amazingly sensible decision about the recycling of rare earths: don’t. That this decision is sensible is because the economics of trying to do it just don’t stack up. Trying to recycle much of the use to which these weird metals are put would lead to greater costs than any advantage that could be gained by doing so. And that’s not the aim of the game at all. We want to add value to our inputs, not detract from them. That last part, having output that is worth less than the value of your inputs, is also known as “making everyone poorer”.
The decision is explained here:
U.S. defense officials are not planning reclamation activities for rare earth materials due to cost concerns and indications that market conditions are improving, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall tells lawmakers in a recent report.
The Defense Department “does not currently see a compelling need to take programmatic action with respect to rare earth recycling and reclamation and indeed, because of the lack of a sufficient business case, the department does not currently have any operational-level rare earth recycling and reclamation defense programs,”
Despite my continuing to be a lickspittle running dog for the capitalist classes there is indeed a case for recycling at times, most especially in the metals industry. I once recycled 40 tons of an old Soviet nuclear power station into go-faster wheels for sports cars for example, a pleasantly profitable activity, so I’m most certainly in favor of it at times. Pretty much all the gold ever mined (minus the stuff that has weathered off onion domes perhaps) has been recycled again and again because it’s so damn valuable. We recycle aluminium cans not because we’re ever going to run out of aluminium ores from the Earth (no, really, we wont, we’ll be dead from an asteroid strike before that happens) but because converting the oxide into the metal requires some $900 a ton of metal of electricity, which we don’t have to spend if we collect the old cans and just melt them down again.
But these are simple cases. When we can make a profit from an activity, assuming no unpriced externalities, then we know that we’re adding value by that activity. That’s what the profit is, the value being added. There are also cases when recycling just doesn’t make sense at all. We can reverse most chemical processes if we’re prepared to stick enough energy into them, but no one is seriously suggesting that we should try to break down old cement into its constituent parts in order to recycle it into new cement. That would be ludicrous given the energy requirements.
Then there are those interim cases where it’s not directly profitable to recycle but we do have one or more of those externalities and considering them might make it worthwhile. We’re pretty keen about recycling lead out of the environment, despite its low price, as we’re not all that keen on having lead floating around the environment. I’m involved in a scheme like this at present myself at a radioactive waste site. Trying to clean it up by extracting the valuable, non-radioactive metals doesn’t work on cost grounds. But given that we (as in the societal “we”) don’t like radioactive dust blowing around it needs to be cleaned up anyway. So why not extract those valuable metals at the same time?
Where something is on this spectrum determines the correct attitude to recycling it or not. And that can change depending on all sorts of things too. In my native UK, recycling clear glass is profitable, recycling green glass is not; the reason being that green is usually used for wine bottles, something we import a lot of but don’t produce or use very often domestically. So clear glass gets recycled into the next generation of glasses and bottles, and green gets used as hardcore for roads.
Which brings us to this DoD decision over rare earths. There has been, just recently, a lot of shouting and noise about the Chinese holding us all to ransom over supplies. They’re producing 97% of the world’s supply and are threatening to raise prices and limit exports. The threat has largely gone away as two non-Chinese companies (Molycorp and Lynas Corp) have brought their mines online and so now non-Chinese production just about meets non-Chinese demand of 40 to 50,000 tons a year. On the other side of the equation, in the ease or not of recycling rare earths, the problem is that they’re usually used in very small quantities in any particular product. Those vast wind turbines might contain a ton or two of neodymium in the magnet and that’ll certainly be recycled when the time comes. But the same magnets are also used in hard drives and you’d need to disassemble by hand 1 million drives to get perhaps 2 tonnes of that Nd. And that would be worth, after you’ve then dissolved it in acid, processed out the Nd oxide, then converted it back to the metal, some $80,000 to $100,000. This just isn’t worth the effort of collecting then trying to process 1 million hard drives. Another way of making the same point is that we would have to spend more in energy, labor and transport costs to get that couple of tons than the couple of tons would be worth. Our output would be worth less than our inputs and we would therefore be making the world a poorer place. Similarly, the few milligrams of Tb in a CFL mean that you’d need to recycle millions to get a few kilograms of the material that you can use again.
All of which is why I welcome this decision by DoD. Yes, it’s absolutely true that some things are worth recycling simply because it’s profitable to do so. It’s also true that some recycling can and does take place for additional, externality reasons. But some recycling shouldn’t be done at all simply because it is too expensive to do it and there’s no overriding other reason why it should be done, like pollution. So, given that rare earths largely fall into this last category not recycling them is the appropriate conclusion.
[image adapted via wikipedia by Brad Jonas for Pando]