Europe Moves to Recycle Rare Earths

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"Europe must become 'a recycling society with prices that reflect environmental costs.'"

Under pressure from industry and governments, the European Commission is putting the final touches on a strategy to reduce Europe’s dependence on China to supply the rare earth minerals, essential in export products like cars and electronics.

The commission, the executive agency of the European Union, wants industry to play a much greater role in recycling and stockpiling rare earths as a way of mitigating higher prices and forestalling potential shortages in the coming years.

The commission also wants to assist countries in Africa in extracting the metals in a sustainable way.

The strategy paper is to be submitted for approval to the European Parliament and the council of European Union heads of state in coming weeks, although the commission has already delayed its release twice in the last month.

Last week, the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources, said in a statement that it had taken steps to take direct control of 11 rare earth mining districts in southern China. The move gave the Chinese authorities even greater control at a time when the U.S. and several European governments, particularly Germany, have been seeking assurances from Beijing that it would continue to supply rare earths.

One of the biggest problems facing Europe, according to the commission paper, is the lack of recycling or substitution processes for rare earths currently available.

The commission is investing €17M for research into improving underground technologies and the substitution of some rare earths. It also hopes to improve recycling of electronic and car parts that contain rare earths.

Another European Parliament member, the Dutch Green environmentalist Bas Eickhout, said the commission needed a radical shift in thinking. "We need to change perspectives by treating waste as valuable resources and start moving toward a recycling society with prices that reflect environmental costs," he said.

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