Significant reserves of rare earths currently reside in Japanâ€™s â€˜urban mines,â€™ or discarded consumer electronics. It has been estimated that these used electronics could yield up toÂ 300,000 tonsÂ of rare earths, holding great potential to offset a considerable fraction of Japanâ€™s imports, approximatelyÂ 35,000 tonsÂ in 2008. Recycling can take advantage of Japanâ€™s high electronics density, especially as components often outlive the actual applianceâ€™s relatively short lifespan (cell phones are used for an average ofÂ 2.6 yearsÂ in Japan). DisusedÂ cell phones, LCD television and computers contain valuable rare earths, such as neodymium, which are in high demand, especially for hybrid vehicles. For example, each Toyota Prius requires approximately 2.2 pounds ofÂ neodymium.
To harness the potential of urban mines, manufacturers are seeking to reintegrate used products and their components into the production cycle. Japanese electronics giants, includingÂ MitsubishiÂ andÂ Hitachi, are stepping up efforts to improve the viability of rare earth recycling. A more comprehensive recycling system can be incentivized by addressing concerns overÂ private dataÂ that have slowed cell phone recycling rates in recent years. Technological advancements can also improve the recycling process, especially for separating rare earths, and increase recovery rates, which currently stand atÂ 150gÂ of rare earth metals per ton of material for a leading Japanese recycler.
While China announcedÂ further cutsÂ to its rare earth exports in 2011, recycling initiatives currently underway will likely lag behind the anticipated short term supply crunch. However, there are strongÂ environmental and economic rationalesÂ for recycling rare metals in addition to long term strategic benefits. Recycling efforts can facilitate both processing of e-waste, thereby addressing a mounting environmental concern, and recovery of other significant metal reserves, includingÂ gold and tantalum, that are also languishing in Japanâ€™s urban mines.