Does the recycling of rare earth elements fit in a strategy against climate change?
Guido Sonnemann, Dieuwertje Schrijvers
Université de Bordeaux, France
Rare earth elements (REEs) are considered as critical materials by the European Commission. Trends towards the implementation of recycling of REEs must be stimulated. However, policy makers also have to consider the Paris agreements that aim for reduced emissions of greenhouse gases in order to limit the effects of climate change. Does the increased recycling of REEs indeed contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions? This question can be answered by a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that studies the effects of the additional recycling of REEs on the environment. These effects can be completely different for each individual REE, although in practice these are not always differentiated. Some elements are produced in surplus, while there is a shortage of others. Only the demand of a few elements actually influences the amount of primary ore that is mined. Therefore, the recycling of REEs sometimes leads to additional stockpiling of REEs, sometimes to an increased use by the marginal user of the element, and sometimes to decreased mining. The different (market) situations of the REEs largely influence the potential environmental benefits of a recycling route. This is illustrated by a case study. Additional recycling results in the stockpiling of cerium and lanthanum, decreased mining of yttrium, and an increased availability of europium and terbium for the production of additional fluorescent lamps – which is their most important application. If fluorescent lamps are used to replace less energy-efficient halogen lamps, the recycling route is beneficial for the environment. However, if the production of fluorescent lamps delays the implementation of more energy-efficient LED lamps, recycling is environmentally disadvantageous. This case study demonstrates the relevance of market mechanisms in the evaluation of the environmental impacts and benefits of a recycling route.