Worms, China, and Pollution: Is Green Technology Worth It?

The rising demand for green energy has necessitated an increase in the mining of rare earth minerals, leading to a plethora of environmental and political problems.

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Experts estimate that we have no more than eight years to save the planet from the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Record rainfalls, forest fires, and abnormal temperatures have already impacted roughly 80 percent of the global population. To combat the growing threats, some have turned to green technology. Renewable energy production has increased 42 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it one of the fastest growing industries in the nation, while electric vehicle sales doubled to reach a record of 6.6 million in 2021. These trends will continue as states start enforcing laws that promote green technology, like California’s recent ban on the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035.

Green technology is hailed for good reason. One study found that generating 35 percent of the nation’s electricity using wind and solar power in the western United States would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25 to 45 percent. Another study noted that electric vehicles emit up to 43 percent less than traditional diesel vehicles. However, few consider the process by which green technology is produced. Common green energy infrastructure such as windmills, geothermal and tidal turbines, and solar panels all require the use of permanent magnets or batteries to function. Key materials in the construction of these technologies are rare earth minerals, a group of 17 metallic elements. Rare earth minerals get their name from how difficult they are to obtain and extract, as they are dispersed around the globe and usually aren’t found in pure forms. One three-megawatt wind turbine contains three tons of these metallic elements. Rare earth minerals are necessary in the production of numerous devices like cell phones and LED lights, but the amount required in these devices is miniscule. However, increasing green technology usage on a national level would require the mining of an unprecedented amount of rare earth minerals.

Increasing rare earth mineral usage is questionable in terms of both its environmental and political consequences. Rare earth minerals are often mined from open-pit mines, a process of digging to extract materials from shallow layers of the earth’s surface. This practice exposes eight to 10 times more waste to the environment than underground mining, leading to soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and water contamination. In fact, securing a single ton of rare earth minerals produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste. Companies also often spray dangerous amounts of acids over mining areas in order to separate rare earth minerals from other ores and mining byproducts.

In an attempt to expand their inventory, companies have recently begun looking toward deep ocean floors, where an estimated 500 billion tons of rare earth mineral-containing polymetallic nodules are scattered. Though the extraction of the nodules from the seabeds is relatively simple with a vacuum or pipe, removing them leads to numerous complications. The process stirs up vast amounts of sediments, polluting the environment of deep-sea organisms such as pearlescent worms and glass sponges, as well as animals that swim through those regions, like whale sharks.

In addition to the environmental consequences, increasing American demand for rare earth minerals means that the U.S. will become further reliant on China, which controls more than 85 percent of the world’s mined output of rare earth minerals. Past efforts to mine and process rare earth minerals in the U.S. have failed, including California’s Mountain Pass Mine, which declared bankruptcy in 2015 and was subsequently taken over by a Chinese company. With rising tensions between the U.S. and China over political hotspots like global trade and Taiwan, the dependency of the American green tech industry on China may become an issue.

In the past, China restricted exports of rare earth minerals to countries with whom they had disputes. A key example is the trade embargo that was placed on Japan in 2010 after the country detained a Chinese fishing trawler captain. Much like the United States, Japan had been almost entirely dependent on China for the minerals. Japan was quickly forced to diversify its importing sources and increase domestic investment in the industry. With comprehensive government support, Japan was able to cut its reliance on Chinese rare earth minerals from 90 percent to 58 percent in just 10 years. In the future, if China has reason to believe that American actions necessitate trade restrictions, the United States may have to travel down a similar path.

In an age when many consider climate change to be the most pressing issue of our generation, it is inevitable that green technology will continue to expand. Currently, a very small amount of rare earth minerals are being recycled into new devices and technology. This minority is due to the labor-intensive recycling process, which can be improved upon with the creation of products that are easier to dismantle. One recently launched innovative recycling process developed by the ​​Critical Materials Institute uses a chemical solution to extract the minerals from other waste. Recycling reduces the need to mine frequently for new materials and decreases the amount of waste produced.

The harms of open source mining can also be mitigated through recycling processes. China created new rare earth mineral mining regulations in 2015 in response to public calls for environmental action. One of these new laws mandated that at least 85 percent of mixed rare earth mineral wastewater be recycled. In addition, bastnaesite, a key mineral in the extraction of rare earth minerals, now had to be extracted using a treatment system that is capable of comprehensively treating wastewater and solid wastes for toxic and radioactive materials. These regulations have not been implemented completely, but they should be as soon as possible.

Finally, a preventative solution is to designate areas of the deep ocean floor as areas of particular environmental interest. This indication can protect the organisms living there from the immediate harms of extracting rare earth minerals. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has over 100 reasons why an area may be designated as one of environmental interest. However, all of these reasons are broad and do not protect the ocean floor from mining. Therefore, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea should designate specific rules and areas to protect underwater ecosystems. For example, certain habitats with endangered species, capstone species (any organism that holds the ecosystem together), or a high concentration of organisms should be protected. In addition, mining could be suspended during certain breeding or migratory seasons.

The rare earth mineral industry is lucrative and expanding, making strict regulations unlikely. Despite more and more consumers valuing sustainability, companies will always prioritize profit over environmental action. Additionally, since these are global issues that depend on international treaties and the laws of countries other than the United States, it is difficult to enforce widespread regulation. If America wishes to continue expanding its green technology market, it must collaborate with global actors to guarantee a sustainable future for green energy.