Chemist Wolfram Palitzsch's father was a habitual recycler.
Growing up in communist East Germany, where anything might suddenly be in short supply, Palitzsch watched his dad fill bags with bottle tops and anything else that could be reused.
Three decades later, Palitzsch grew dismayed watching factory workers fill rubbish bags with rare earths elements—the raw material crucial to manufacturing hi-tech products such as mobile phones, TVs and hybrid cars. Germany faces a critical short supply of these metals.
"I couldn't believe it. They had all this powder in big bags, sitting in the corner waiting to be thrown away," he said. "I said, 'That's stupid. There's 400 tons per year of powder there containing rare earths. Nobody's looking at how it could be recycled.'"
The factory recycled compact fluorescent light bulbs, and the "waste" was the fluorescent powder used inside them. The European Union mandates use of these energy-saving bulbs in place of traditional incandescent lights.
Europe—Germany, in particular—is deeply worried about its future supply of rare earth metals such as Europium, Yttrium and Neodymium, all of which are essential for a hi-tech economy.
"Hampering access to raw materials will severely affect the business activities of hi-tech economies like Germany," said Dr. Susanne Lechner, an expert on rare earths at the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK).
This week, the European Commission is set to release a paper, "Tackling the Challenges in Commodity Markets and on Raw Materials," which will call for a greater effort to find alternatives, including recycling.
Led by Economy Minister Rainer Bruderle, Germany has been pressing China for assurances that it will not cut off supply of rare earths. German industry has discussed—with Bruderle's support—forming a buyer's cartel to improve its clout in the market.
Germany to Recycle REEs to Help Tackle Shortage
Source: Global Post, David Wroe (3/21/11)
"Factory workers continue to fill garbage bags with rare earths elements."