Yes, yes, recycling is a whole lot better than tossing stuff into a landfill, but don’t think that what you send to recycling equates to reclaiming all the energy and materials that went into creating the object in the first place. The actual viability of recycling depends entirely on the price that can be garnered from the commodities recovered minus the actual cost of the recovery. And some things just simply cannot be recovered, either because we don’t know how or because recovery is too costly compared with the potential sale price of the recovered material.

When it comes to electronics, one category of materials that has traditionally stymied recyclers is rare earth elements (REEs). Rare earth elements are not actually rare. Although difficult to mine, they are not intrinsically in short supply. They do, however, possess superpowers in high demand in electronics. They are critical to hybrid batteries, alternative energy, and consumer electronics. Their magnetic strength in minute quantities enables the miniaturization that we equate with convenience. They are what enables cell phones to vibrate. And although Apple is using recycled rare earth elements in its newest phones, it’s still estimated that only about 1% of the rare earth elements used are reclaimed from products at end of life.

The super magnets found in modern hard disks are made of rare earth elements, and, because of their size, are easier to recover and reuse. For several years now, these recovered rare-earth magnets have been finding a new life in new hard drives. Yet the ever-expanding demand for rare earth elements is vastly outpacing their recovery.

Both the difficulty in recovering materials and the initial resources and energy required to produce electronics point to extending the life of electronic devices as the soundest sustainable strategy. Often electronics are abandoned well before their useful life is expended. Usually, finding a new life for the whole device is ideal. When that’s not a viable strategy, finding a new life for its constituent parts is the next best thing. Sending what’s not usable to recycling gives hope that materials can be recovered and reused. In the case of aluminum, for example, using recycled aluminum is significantly better, from a sustainability perspective, than extracting and refining bauxite – the principle ore from which aluminum metals are extracted. Remember that what goes into the creation of a product begins with the original sourcing of the materials needed to create it, and that original energy itself can never, ever be recovered.

Join me as I continue to blog about these topics and more as we explore "sustainable electronics."

carol-baroudi-smCarol Baroudi has been focused on sustainable electronics for more than 15 years and is recognized for her prominent work as lead author for Green IT for Dummies. Carol is a contributing guest blogger for CNE Direct and consulting to support new sustainability initiatives.