We need aluminum (for those of you in the UK, it’s aluminium). Lots of it. It is a light and strong metal. To make new aluminum, you begin with bauxite ore, and use a lot of electricity. But to recycle aluminum, you start with aluminum, and use ten times less electricity than it takes to make it from bauxite.
In addition to the energy used to refine bauxite into aluminum, there is also the fact that the largest bauxite reserves are in countries that often have low industrial capacity and do not use very much aluminum. They are small countries that would not be able to put up much resistance if a country like the USA told them we wanted their bauxite. The largest reserves (7.4 billion metric tons) are in Guinea, a small poor African nation. Brazil has 3.6, Vietnam 2.1, and Jamaica 2.0 billion metric tons. The only significant industrial power with large bauxite deposits is Brazil, with 3.6 billion metric tons. Industrial countries have far less: China has 0.8, Russia has 0.2, and the USA has only 0.04 billion metric tons of bauxite reserves.
Our extravagant use of raw aluminum, while throwing used aluminum into landfills, makes economic sense only because we can get new aluminum from smaller countries. What if these countries decided to charge more money for it, or preferred to sell the bauxite to one of our competitors, such as China? Would we go to war for bauxite rather than to recycle what we already have? I wonder how many Americans are lazy and selfish enough that they would prefer to see an aluminum war rather than to take a few extra moments and a few extra steps to recycle aluminum cans? Half of our federal budget is for the military. How many Americans consider half of our tax money (and the money we borrow from other places), and the lives of our fellow Americans in the military, to be expendable so that we can throw whatever we like in the garbage? Go ahead. Next time you see a soldier, tell her or him that you would rather see them engaged in open conflict than for you to recycle, then tell yourself what a patriot you are.
There are a lot of rare and expensive metals in cell phones. One example is gold. At present, it is cheaper to mine gold from ore than it is to recycle it from electronic equipment. But that is only because, first, we ignore the environmental costs of gold mining, such as at the big mine in Australia shown in the figure, and second, we assume that we will never run out of ore. It is easy (in most places) to recycle old cell phones; electronics stores have receptacles for them, and some will even pay you for them. But Americans prefer to throw them away: ninety percent of them. Would we, perhaps, be willing to go to war for gold rather than to recycle it?
Some of those elements you heard about in high school chemistry actually have some very important uses. Praseodymium, for example, is a component of metal used in aircraft engines. Cerium is used as a catalyst to refine petroleum. Lanthanum is used in carbon arc lights such as those used in projectors. Neodymium is used in welders’ goggles. Samarium is part of the crystals used in optical lasers, and absorbs neutrons in nuclear reactors. Gadolinium is used in color picture tubes and magnetic resonance imaging. These are highly specialized but very important uses.
The reason I chose these particular metals is that Afghanistan has raw ores for these metals—a trillion dollars’ worth.
Though not a chemist, I can imagine that recycling these metals must be difficult, much more so than recycling aluminum. Imagine getting neodymium out of old welder’s goggles. At what point does it become cost-effective to recycle rare metals? The answer depends, of course, on the availability of raw ores for these metals. If Afghanistan will allow American corporations to mine their ores, and let us do so for cheap, then our industrial and political leaders will probably choose to use new, rather than recycled, rare metals.
But Afghanistan seems to be continually at war; America has had a very active and expensive military presence since 2002. When industrial leaders make their calculations for investing in rare metal mining in Afghanistan, they assume that American military presence will be available to protect them for free, that is, at taxpayer expense.
And, of course, our economic competitors such as China want these metals too.
This brings up the uncomfortable possibility that America might be willing to go to war for raw ores of these important rare metals rather than recycling them. We may choose to go ahead and throw away all those metals and, if we start to run out of them, just go to war and take what we need. As any black or Native American can tell you, American history consists largely of the white American government and economic leaders benefiting from the forced labor of, or taking land and all its resources away from, people of color. I am not suggesting that our current Afghan war is motivated by the desire for these metals at this time. One the other hand, maybe it is, or will soon be.
A war for raw mineral ores can be avoided by recycling, which is very easy to do for aluminum, very difficult to do for neodymium, but always possible.
Recycling is the right thing to do for world peace.