Following research carried out over the last 18 months, the EU has produced a list of 14 rare earth metals that are vital for modern industry and economic growth. China controls over 95 % of global production and supply and a major concern is that the Chinese have recently reduced exports of these precious substances.
The UK is reasonably placed to respond to any shortages, because it has long been in the forefront of recycling. Currently the UK is the world leader in mobile phone recycling. A report published earlier this year revealed that around 8 million mobiles were recycled in the UK in 2009. This achievement is the result of government, NGOs and the corporate world working together to educate consumers about the environmental damage that is caused by improper mobile phone disposal. The UK recycling industry has now become the most developed and properly regulated in the world. Recent measures have included a new legal requirement for mobile phone recyclers to check whether a mobile phone has been stolen before selling it on.
Whilst the efforts of all sectors have been commendable to arrive at this position of global leadership, the average consumer tends to be motivated more by financial gain than a desire to be green. Phones that are thrown away in the rubbish end up in landfill where dangerous chemicals and heavy metals leach into soil and groundwater and cause environmental damage.
A new approach to educating the public could be to emphasise the potential volatility of supply of rare earth metals and the implications for future mobile phone production if these materials are not recovered and reused. The horrific thought of being unable to continually upgrade to the latest model might change people’s mindsets.