REE trump card: being greener than China?
Search the Greenpeace site for “rare earths” and there are nil items*. Just as well for the rare earth industry.
However, this oversight by the militant environmentalists has provided the non-China REE players a possible trump card before the environmentalists link Chinese REE product and pollution to the world’s most popular tech gadgets: Western REE companies can say they are environmentally responsible (which they are – and have to be).
Earlier this year the British Broadcasting Corporation posted a report on Baotou, the centre in Inner Mongolia where cerium, neodymium and other rare earths are produced. It is infamous for its huge toxic, radioactive lake of REE waste – so infamous that a London tabloid, the Daily Mail, a few years ago dispatched a team to fill a double-page spread about one of the most polluted places on earth.
In the BBC item, reporter Tim Maughan said this: “After seeing the impact of rare earth mining myself, it’s impossible to view the gadgets I use everyday in the same way. As I watched Apple announce their smart watch recently, a thought crossed my mind: once we made watches with minerals mined from the Earth and treated them like precious heirlooms; now we use even rarer minerals and we’ll want to update them yearly. Technology companies continually urge us to upgrade; to buy the newest tablet or phone. But I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Bautou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon.”
Apple, and other tech companies, rely on a rip-and-replace attitude from consumers. Look at the way the queues form overnight when the latest model iPhone is about to be released.
But here’s the thing: Apple is environmentally conscious, its clientele is dominated by the young (for whom environmentalism has replaced Christianity as their underlying religion), and the tech companies are very fortunate that all the buyers of iPhones and various other gadgets haven’t made the link between their newest purchase and what happens at Baotou and other REE production locations in China. (It’s not Apple’s fault that its REE come from China: it has little alternative at present.)
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Because if they do, it will be interesting to see what is more important: their attachment to gadgetry or their obsession with having a cleaner, greener world.
One potential producer has already tumbled to this.
In a largely overlook report recently, Bloomberg reported on how a Chilean company is planning to boost its rare earth credentials. (It was picked up by one website that headlined: “Rare earth mining in Chile could make China look bad”.) The Bloomberg report concerned a company called Minera BioLantánidos which has a plan to produce neodymium, dysprosium and other elements and is aiming at attracting Apple’s attention. The key is the method of production. This is how Bloomberg Business explained it:
“While operations in China typically pump ammonium sulfate into the ground and wait for the chemical to seep out with the minerals, at Biolantánidos the plan is to dig out the clay, put it through a tank-leaching process with biodegradable chemicals and return it cleaned to the ground, replanting pine and eucalyptus trees. It may be laborious, but [project leader Arturo] Albornoz is hoping companies such as ThyssenKrupp AG, Apple Inc. and Tomahawk cruise missile maker Raytheon Co. will end up paying a premium, knowing their suppliers aren’t destroying the planet.”
As BBC reporter Maughan also noted, “It could be argued that China’s dominance of the rare earth market is less about geology and far more about the country’s willingness to take an environmental hit that other nations shy away from.”
Back in May Greenpeace named Apple as the greenest tech company. But, as the website Australian Popular Science noted, “when analyzing Apple, for example, they measured the environmental footprint left by services like iTunes and iCloud–not at how Macs or iPhones are made”.
What if Greenpeace did start looking at how these products were made?
Perhaps other non-China rare earth hopefuls could follow the Chilean’s lead and look at ways to buff up their green credentials.
Footnote: Something published today in China Daily had an astonishing last two paragraphs. The report was about how Chinese REE producers are looking at downstream technology. At the conclusion, the report quoted Chen Chuandong from the Baotou Research Institute of Rare Earths saying one of the challenges companies have faced is the huge cost often involved in R&D. He added: “When market prospects are good, Chinese companies that are busy making money can be unwilling to invest in innovation or product upgrade. But, of course, also when the market is struggling, there is a reluctance too because they are suffering falling profits or even losses”.
China’s REE Achilles heel, perhaps?
* This refers only to the Greenpeace Australia site. Unfortunately, if you try from Sydney to access the US or other sites it defaults to the Australian one, so other sites may have REE references.
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