Rare earth element (REE) mainly consists of seventeen chemical elements. REE are crucial in nowadays technology as they can optimise the performance of high-tech products such as smartphones, wind turbines and missile defence systems. However, REEs have to be extracted from ores, then purified and processed before any applications. Some reported that companies often underestimate the negative impacts of REE bringing to the environment and miners at the sites. An ethical topic issue about REE – “Should REE be developed and monitored locally?” is identified,
Increase of competitiveness among countries and technology development in rare earth production
China controls about 95% of the world’s rare earth production. But meanwhile, it is also the dominant consumer of REE in order to manufacture electronic products for domestic and export markets. For example, laptops, digital cameras, hybrid vehicles and cell phones. They all operate with rechargeable batteries which are made with rare earth compounds. In 2010, there was the export quota reduction by China that caused the prices for rare earth materials increase dramatically in those few years.
However, due to these high prices, the competitiveness in REE industry is rising. Mining companies in other countries have begun to reevaluate old rare earth prospects and find new sources of supply. Besides, mines in both Australia and United States have re-started the production of rare earth oxides again since 2011. They supplied about 6-8% of world production between 2012 and 2015. Nowadays, more manufacturers in other countries also started taking roles in production, such as Vietnam, Brazil, Russia and Malaysia. These actions made the production percentage of China decreased to 86% in 2012.
In 2016, although China was still the world leader in rare earth production, they only control around 36% of the world’s rare earths reserves. This gives an opportunity for the manufacturers from other countries to take important roles in production.
To determine the market price of an item, people always focus on its supply and demand. As supply decreases, prices will obviously go up. At that time, mining companies would see this as an opportunity and attempt to develop alternative resources, such as expanded recycling, coal and coal ash and deep sea deposits. This prevents from negative effects caused by a dominant world producer. When manufacturers explore further potential reserves around the world, this would strike a balance between supply and demand, although the demand would keep on increasing during the next decades because of various applications of REE. And the prices would become more stable.
To compete with other opponents in the industry of REE, price and quality play as key roles. Price factor is affected by supplying quantities. In other words, it means the production rate. Some countries may want to produce more REEs but they do not have a lot of REE reserves. Another method for them to increase its competitiveness is finding new or special technique and high technology to refine REE with higher purity. Marketing studies reveal that the price of high purity REEs have sharply increased past few decades as the demand of highly purified REEs increase gradually in order to improve the efficiency of downstream products.
Such developments do not only provide higher purity in REEs, but also new and effective refinery process may be developed. For instance, using ionic extractor to extract REE in coal is more environmental-friendly and energy efficient comparing to traditional mining process.
Environmental, storage issue with cities nearby society and working areas
As there is a rapid demand on REE, the quantity of production is apparently rank in priority to the quality of miners’ health and safety. In addition, coltan, a rare mineral which is a very commonly-seen conductor in nowadays smartphone but it is not as commonly seen for the miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), who search for its existence 12 hours a day. The negative health impacts to workers from long-term exposure to REEs may be inevitable, however the terrible working conditions exposed that insufficient health and safety measures are provided from the companies.
Reported by Daily mail, miners with youngest age of 10 were only provided with rudimentary equipment to excavate coltan in DRC while some even used bare hands to filter out precious minerals by sluice similar to those used in a 19th century gold rush. Beside the unreasonably long working hours, there was no shelter on the exposed mountain for rest under the midday sun. Furthermore, it was reported that seven workers were killed because of a poorly-supported tunnel collapse. Meanwhile, poor hygiene and the unsafe act of not wearing breathing respirators among workers also happened in China, which contributes to radiation risk when processing REEs. The companies should acknowledge the health risks and the responsibility to ensure safety measures are adopted, civilised working conditions are provided and strict restrictions on working hours and age are implanted especially when REEs are developed locally.
Beside the harmful effects on workers’ health and safety, mining and processing of REE also bring negative impacts to the environment of the mining site and suburb areas nearby. Natural habitats are also destructed because of the severe water pollution caused by processing of REE. Although some pollutants are unavoidable, any other pollution could be minimised, but didn’t, because of its great cost.
Moreover, the lack of appropriate regulations and supervisions from the governing body tolerated non-environmental friendly mines and unnumbered illegal mines, which is often regarded as a crucial factor that exacerbates environmental damage. In 2015, it was believed that around 30% of the China’s overall production came from illegal mining. This shows that the governing body was unaware of the consequences caused by excessive mining and illegal mining.
In EU, the Best Available Technique Reference Documents (BREFs) is used to promote good environmental practice for industries. Through an exchange of information with stakeholders on existing processes, the most effective techniques which can achieves a higher level of environmental protection will be selected by committee procedures and written into BREFs. If new mines and plants are developed locally, these documents will be useful as reference for the governing body to set appropriate regulations to minimise harmful effects on environment and workers because the protection of local people and environment is always the major responsibility of the governing body.
Group 25: Hui Fung Ho, Pui Ho Royce Lee, Ki Fung Lam, Ho Hin Choy