Rare earths are ubiquitous to our daily lives. Take smartphones – 16 out of the 17 rare earth elements can be found in these devices and they enable key functions like vibrations and sound. However, mining and processing these minerals is highly polluting and toxic; plus future supply may not meet growing demand.
We have recently guest authored a report for CLSA U® which examines China’s tightening control over the toxic interactive core of our smartphones. On the one hand, China is waging a war on pollution and on the other; it needs more critical raw materials to grow its own strategic emerging industries. How will China’s plan impact global supply of the minerals critical to our “swipe lifestyle”? See our review here.
In particular, we deep dive some of the action taken to mitigate this risk. How is Apple, one of the world’s foremost electronic brands, greening its raw material supply chain? Why is rare earth recycling important and what are the challenges?
Rare earths in iPhones
Apple’s latest annual environmental sustainability report released in April 2017 puts forward comprehensive sustainable development goals and commits Apple to creating a “closed-loop supply chain”. New future products are expected to be manufactured from waste products through the recovery of raw materials and recycled materials. The report claims this aims not only to achieve “responsible sourcing”, but also to end the dependence on the mining industry.
It can be estimated that the production of these iPhones consumed about 279t of rare earth elements…
… the actual used amount could be higher than this recoverable number
In this report, Apple disclosed for the first time the potential recovery rate of major metallic raw materials from an iPhone 6 by the Liam disassembly line. The amount of rare earth used in Apple’s phones is 4x the amount estimated by the European Commission (EC): using Apple’s data, it can be estimated that each iPhone 6 contains 0.24g of rare earth elements; compared to the EC’s estimation of 0.06g (0.05g of neodymium and 0.01g of praseodymium). In fact, rare earth elements were the fifth most abundant metallic raw material after aluminum, copper, cobalt and tin, followed by silver and tungsten. Please note that this is the amount of potential metal that Liam can recycle from used products, rather than the actual amount of raw material used in the product. The actual used amount could be higher than this recoverable number, but without sufficient disclosure, this remains unknown.
Limited data disclosure means we can only estimate numbers
Limited data disclosure also means we cannot estimate the rare earth content in other Apple products either. But rare earth consumption in smartphones is amazing enough. In July 2016, iPhone’s global sales reached 1 billion units. In the next three quarters, iPhone’s cumulative sales hit 164 million units. It can be roughly estimated that the production of these smartphones consumed about 279 tonnes of rare earth elements.
Apple claims that components containing rare earths dismantled by the Liam line will be treated by specialised companies dedicated to rare earth permanent magnet recovery, separation and regeneration processes. But what of rare earths in components other than magnets such as screens, vibrations, batteries, and so on? Again with limited disclosure, this remains ambiguous.
|Apple’s iPhone disassembly line – Liam
Liam is an Apple R&D project focused on new disassembly technologies. It utilizes a fully autonomous, clean take-apart process to liberate and separate individual components for speciality material recycling. The automated disassembly system was custom built for the iPhone 6 with the ability to disassemble 1.2 million iPhone units per year.There are currently two Liam systems—one in the United States (California) and another in the Netherlands.
Source: Apple’s Liam White Paper 2016
Apple is leading but much room for improvement
Although Apple has taken an important step, the status quo is not perfect: non-transparency is still pervasive and the roadmap as to how it will achieve its green commitments regarding traceability is still unclear.
Apple is leading the wave of green commitments compared to other smartphone giants…
… but we still do not know how much of Apple’s rare earth supply comes from the black market
At the raw material level, we still do not know how much of Apple’s rare earth supply comes from the black market, nor are we aware of whether Apple is pursuing a strict accountability system on rare earth raw material purchases (like “conflict minerals”). In addition to rare earths, the iPhone also uses many other critical raw materials, such as tungsten and tin. China’s market share of these two materials, according to the USGS, is up to 82% and 36% respectively, and they have been classified by the Chinese government as “national strategic minerals.”
Compared to Huawei, Xiaomi, Samsung and other smartphone giants, Apple is no doubt leading the wave of green commitments. Its recent objectives are the most ambitious yet and Apple is undoubtedly an example for the electronics sector to follow.
We expect Apple to translate the brand’s green transformation plan into action – through higher environmental requirements for upstream raw material suppliers, further disclosing raw material supply information and strengthening the review and legitimacy of raw material sources. If these are achieved, Apple products can be disassociated from pollution, black market, environmental crime and become real green products. For more on the leaders and laggards of the industry see here.
Recycling may ease supply shortages
It’s not just about being green. Electronic brands need to recognise and address the rare earth supply risk embedded in their products.
China’s cutting of rare earth export quotas in 2011 triggered a global panic. Many countries conducted studies on the supply of raw materials and without exception, forecasted shortages in rare earth supply. This has led to a series of chain reactions, including new overseas rare earth mining exploration projects. However, the actual production of these projects is low with economic feasibility being the main obstacle. Also, a large amount of R & D funds flowed into developing alternatives for rare earths while some companies chose to remove rare earth elements from their production lines entirely.
Recycling is scarcely mentioned for rare earths
These “cost-cutting” measures will undoubtedly help ease supply shortages. However, recycling is a widely used recycling solution in other heavy metals, but is scarcely mentioned for rare earths. According to the “Metal Recycling: Opportunities, Limitations and Facilities” report published by the United Nations Environment Program in 2013, only 1% of the world’s rare earth is recovered. Think tank Adamas Intelligence and other research institutions believe that rare earth recycling will be an important source of rare earth supply.
Tailings are a potential source
Tailings, for instance, are a potential source of rare earth recycling. In China’s Inner Mongolia Baiyun Obo rare earth mining area, the China Northern Rare Earth Group sits on the world’s largest rare earth tailings lake. Although this tailings lake has been criticised for radiation and pollution, it can be a potentially rich rare earth source waiting to be developed. This lake contains a large number of rare earths, iron, niobium, fluorite and other recyclable resources.
Indeed, the utilisation of tailings has been the focus of the Baotou Rare Earth Research Institute. The latest annual processing (15,000 tonnes) of Baiyun Obo tailings by a rare earth mineral processing production line shows that clean smelting of high grade rare earth concentrate is possible and that radioactive elements such as thorium can be effectively recovered.
Rare earth recycling likely to boom but technical issues need solving
UNEP has reported that rare earth recovery could only partially alleviate the expected increase in rare earth demand. But given the current low recycling rates, this part of the rare earth supply still has a lot of room to grow – such as in wind turbines.
According to our report “Towards a Water and Energy Secure China“, we have calculated that in 2014, China’s 96 million kilowatts (96GW) of wind power installed capacity consumed around 1.64-175 million tonnes of neodymium (Nd) and 2,843 tonnes of dysprosium (Dy). If China added 100 million kilowatts (100GW) of wind power capacity during the 13th Five-Year Plan period, it would additionally consume 1.7-1.8 million tonnes of neodymium (Nd) and 2,950 tonnes of dysprosium (Dy). This is not accounting for rare earth consumption in turbine maintenance and other equipment. According to the latest long-term energy development goals of the Chinese government, non-fossil energy generation will account for 50% of total electricity generation by 2030.
In general, the design cycle of a wind turbine is about 25 years. Wind turbines installed at the turn of the 21st century will soon need replacements. Should the rare earths contained in these turbines be effectively recovered and re-used, the rare earth supply shortage can be somewhat alleviated.
There are no long-term plans for turbine recycling
The problem now is that there are no turbine manufacturers or operators with long-term plans for turbine recycling. The Chinese government has implemented an extension of the producer responsibility system but the wind power industry has yet to take on this the pilot initiative.
Technical problems plague China’s rare earth recycling industry
Will there be substantial progress in rare earth recovery and separation technology 25 years on? That is, will the efficiency of recovering rare earth from waste products increase? Can recovered rare earths maintain high performances? For now, these technical problems plague China’s rare earth recycling industry. As sources in the rare earth recycling industry have commented: “a circular economy is not economic.”
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