What are actually Rare earths and critical metals? Whether privately or for work, many of us use technical devices such as computers, tablets and cell phones on a daily basis. Right now, I am already using my laptop again to write this article. Very few people know that controversial resources, so-called rare earths and critical metals, are used to manufacture these technical devices. But what do we actually mean by these terms? Where do rare earths come from, how are they extracted and what does their extraction mean for our environment? In this article, I would like to answer all these questions about rare metals and show you how to use this resource sustainably.
Note: As there are so many different technical devices, I have decided to focus on the most commonly used device in this article - the smartphone. While our current smartphone is in constant use, the predecessor devices usually end up unused in drawers in millions of households. This is how the important rare earths are lost.
What are rare earths and critical metals?
What exactly is behind the terms rare earths or critical metals? In the next two sections, I would like to look at the topic of rare earths and critical metals in more detail.
Rare earths, sometimes referred to as rare earth metals, are arguably some of the most important raw materials in the modern world. The 17 elements that belong to the rare earths are exceptional metals that occur naturally in minerals. I have put together a brief overview of all 17 rare earth elements below:
More about critical metals
And what about critical metals? Whether a metal is classified as critical depends on many factors. These include the political stability of the mining area, the price and demand for the metal and a number of other aspects. Cobalt, gold and tantalum, among others, are currently classified as critical. These are all metals that can be found in electrical appliances. (Recommended article: Dispose of electrical appliances correctly)
Most rare earths and critical metals are mined in Asian and African countries. China has been number one in the extraction of rare earths for years. A staggering 120,000 tons of these raw materials are extracted there every year. However, countries such as Australia, Canada, the USA and parts of Russia also mine the raw materials. Albeit in much smaller quantities. At first glance, it may appear that rare earths and critical metals are found in large quantities, but appearances are deceptive. Some of these elements are very rare and there is a risk of supply shortages. The metals indium, arsenic, thallium, antimony, silver and selenium are particularly affected. This existing shortage of resources is particularly problematic due to the rapid growth of emerging countries and the constant advance of technological progress. At the current rate of development, a shortage of resources is more than likely.
Rare earths and metals in smartphones, cars and light bulbs
Rare earths and critical metals have become an integral part of our everyday lives. Without them, it would not be possible to manufacture technical devices such as hard disks or laptops.
We find many rare earths and critical metals in a smartphone. Copper and gold are found in the contacts, cables and circuits. Palladium is used to make the contact surfaces between the components more robust. Another extremely rare resource is found in the capacitors: the metal tantalum. It is preferred because capacitors made from this metal remain particularly powerful and durable even when small. The display also contains raw materials such as indium and gallium. Rare earths used in the manufacture of smartphones include yttrium, which is used in memory chips, and lanthanum, which is used in batteries.
Many different rare resources are used in a single cell phone alone. Although only a few grams or even milligrams of these raw materials are used per device, according to a Statista study, 1.4 billion smartphones were sold last year alone. This means that tons of these raw materials are needed for their production. When I think about this figure, I ask myself, does it always have to be the latest smartphone, the bigger TV or the latest "smart" gadget? With a little care and attention, electronic devices can last a few years longer and perform their duties flawlessly. Let's try to simply live more minimalist.
Rare earths are a burden on people and the environment
However, as already indicated, some of the resources could soon become scarce. The widespread use of rare earths and critical metals is not only controversial due to their limited deposits. The extraction of these raw materials places a considerable burden on both the environment and the many people who have to make a living from extracting these resources. Rare earths and many critical metals can only be mined through the use of chemicals.
As a result, contaminated sludge and poisoned soil are left behind. In addition to acid, which is used to dissolve the substances, other toxic waste such as uranium, heavy metals and fluorides are also a consequence of raw material extraction. This waste can get into the groundwater and poison it permanently. There is also a permanent risk of radioactive contamination from uranium and other radioactive substances that occur naturally in many rare earths.
Rare earths as electronic waste
The e-waste produced every year also pollutes our environment. What's more, the leftovers are generally not recycled and many rare earths and critical metals are lost. The e-waste that cannot be recycled ends up either in landfill or in a waste incineration plant. As a result, the majority of the raw materials that were first painstakingly extracted are irretrievably lost. It is therefore very important to dispose of electrical appliances such as smartphones and cell phones correctly so that they can be recycled. You can hand in your old devices to specialist electrical retailers. This is because they are legally obliged to dispose of the devices properly. (see also the article Separate waste correctly)
Sustainable use of rare earths and metals
I would now like to give you some specific tips on how to handle rare earths and critical metals sensibly.
To ensure that electrical appliances last as long as possible, Marco Brandt fromclickrepairThe first thing you should do when you're out and about is to take care of your cell phone and other devices in the WERTGARANTIE repair marketplace. After all, it can easily happen that a mobile device slips out of your hand or pocket on the way to the streetcar or bus and gets damaged. For this reason, I am immediately advised to use a protective cover, as this usually protects mobile devices such as cell phones or tablets from all sides. In a representative survey of 5,000 cell phone users across Germany, it was found that smartphones without protection break almost twice as often as phones that are protected. "Consumers should not only pay attention to the appearance of a cover," says Marco Brandt.
Depending on the model, protective cases are more or less suitable for protecting the devices from drop damage. Flip cases are the first choice when it comes to protecting your smart phone. I always stick a protective film on the screen to additionally protect the phone from scratches. Try to avoid using your smartphone in crowds. This will greatly reduce the risk of dropping your phone on the floor. In the spirit of the Zero Waste Lifestyle even. 😉
What to do in case of cell phone damage?
If appliances are damaged or no longer work properly, we recommend repairing them first if possible. This not only avoids waste and critical resources, but is also easy on the wallet. For many appliances, professional repairs are not only cheaper than buying a new one, but often also cheaper than repairing them yourself at home. One of the reasons for this is that the necessary tools are already available and spare parts for workshops are usually cheaper in larger quantities.
What's more, the cell phone repair shop knows its stuff, whereas I would first have to familiarize myself with the subject before I could even attempt to repair a damaged smartphone, hairdryer or computer. In addition to mail-order repairs, some providers and portals offer the option of going one step further and also show you local service providers in many German cities. This way, we keep our ecological footprint even smaller.
The WERTGARANTIE repair marketplace confirms that insured smartphones are repaired far more frequently than those without cover. Insurance can therefore be particularly useful for appliances that are very expensive to purchase - such as a washing machine, dishwasher or even a high-end smartphone.
Of course, if you have technical know-how, skilled hands and enough time, you can also try to repair it yourself. There are many suitable instructions and spare parts for the respective smartphone model on the Internet.
Anticipatory cell phone purchase
We can also find out in advance which devices are more robust based on experience. For this purpose, clickrepair, the repair marketplace from WERTGARANTIE, offers a monthly Repair checkwhich uses data from more than one million smartphones. The repair check can help answer the question of how durable the various devices are. A robust smartphone is less susceptible to damage and therefore lasts much longer if it is well looked after. This not only helps you to use rare earths and critical metals more sustainably, but can also save you money at the same time.
If you do need a new cell phone at some point, second-hand devices can be a good alternative. Because if we buy a second-hand device, we can prevent it from ending up in the big pile of electronic waste. In most cases, second-hand parts are perfectly fine. If you can't find a suitable second-hand model, it's worth finding out about the various manufacturers. Some smartphone manufacturers now have their devices produced under fair and sustainable conditions. In the article Zero Waste Apps you will also find the eBay classifieds app. There you can quickly find cheap, good used smartphones and other technology items.
Rare earths in cell phones and smartphones
Of course, cell phones, smartphones and other electronic devices improve our quality of life enormously and have become an integral part of both our private lives and our everyday working lives. But while we all enjoy the benefits of technical devices, we must not close our eyes to the problems associated with their production and disposal. In addition, deposits of rare earths and critical metals will be depleted in the coming decades.
For these reasons, I question my consumption critically. What about you? We should all start to rethink our consumption. We don't have to buy a new cell phone every two years when we sign a new contract. By treating them with care, many devices last much longer and can be repaired quickly if they are damaged or defective. In this way, I produce significantly less electronic waste and do our Environment something good. How do you see it? Have you already had a broken smartphone repaired? What was your experience with it? I look forward to your comments below this article.
PS: In order to get some practical tips for this article, I spoke directly to clickrepair, the WERTGARANTIE repair marketplace for smartphones and cell phones exchanged.