Rare earth elements (REEs) are a group of 17 metallic elements mined in ores containing low quantities of REEs. They have particular properties essential to many industries. REEs are key components of clean energy and high-tech growth industries, and are therefore considered a critical raw material.
REEs are imported into the European Union (EU) from a very limited number of producers. Until recently, China has been almost the sole supplier of REEs to the rest of the world. Demand for REEs is high and steadily growing, since more and more products include REEs. The REE market is therefore of economic and geopolitical importance.
Alternatives to the primary supply of REEs from mined ores are being developed to bring relief to the REE market. Recycling of REEs, from materials used in spent products, provides a secondary supply. However, closing the REE “life-cycle” is a technological challenge, due to the specific uses and properties of the elements. Recycling REEs is still at an early stage.
Appropriate conditions for recycling REEs are needed, at every step from collecting useful spent products to supporting research and applying technologies specifically focused on REEs. EU waste legislation and raw materials initiatives are contributing to addressing REE challenges.