Recycling old electronics isn’t necessarily something most Americans do. Many of us, it turns out, just stash our old computers, printers, and TV sets in the closet. Or we leave them at the curb.

But suppose properly recycling those electronics could help redress a potentially critical shortage of elements needed to make electric vehicles?

“Urban mining”

That’s the theory behind a new program in Japan, where a subsidiary of Dowa Holdings—a former mining company—has built a huge plant in Kosaka that liquefies recycled consumer electronics.

From molten material made of former circuit boards and other components, Dowa separates out gold, rare-earth metals and various minerals. Its feedstock includes both Japanese goods and those imported from other countries, including the U.S.

Call it “urban mining,” extracting valuable elements not from virgin ores but from the lodes of used consumer electronics stashed in city and suburban closets everywhere.

Rare-earth metals

The rare-earth metals in particular—among them neodymium and dysprosium—are used in batteries, power electronics, and electric motors, all necessary components of both hybrid and electric vehicles.

And 90 percent of the world’s supplies of those metals now come from China, which announced late last month that it would cut off shipments to Japan over an escalating diplomatic argument.

Recently, the media has caught on, and much coverage has ensued about a potential Chinese stranglehold over global supplies of rare earth metals.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

Electric cars, yes, but also tanks

In the U.S., the Pentagon recognized the threat to its own operations in shortages of strategic metals some years ago. Late last month, in the wake of China’s cutoff to Japan, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing research on global supplies of rare-earth metals.

Rare earth mineral deposits exist in a variety of countries, and mines are being established or reopened in half a dozen countries, including Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Vietnam. A U.S. mine in Mountain Pass, California, is also being reopened.

Efficiencies to come

The global auto industry has historically proven very good at squeezing both costly materials and efficiencies out of complex electromechanical devices manufactured in high volume.

The catalytic converters of today’s cars, for instance, use just a fraction of the precious metals they did 20 years ago.

So, over the long term, automakers and their suppliers seem likely to develop electric motors and other components that eliminate or greatly reduce the use of rare-earth metals for their magnets.

Local recycling drives

Meanwhile, though, there’s probably a local recycling program for your old cell phones, cathode-ray tube monitors, printers, scanners, and answering machines.

A recent electronics waste drive in New York City’s Union Square area, for instance, filled eight semi trailers to the ceiling with old monitors and other used electronics shrink-wrapped onto pallets in 8-foot-high stacks.

In the past, supplies of old electronics often went to third-world countries, where the most valuable components—principally gold and copper—were crudely extracted.

Children with blowtorches

Images of children sitting in dumps piled high with burnt electronics, wielding blowtorches to liquefy and capture these elements, galvanized environmental groups and led to codes of conduct for recycling electronic waste.

Recycle those old electronics properly, then, and they may come back to you over time, buried deep in the electric machinery of hybrid cars and plug-in vehicles.

Still, recycling rates for used electronics remain far lower than they could be. The most recycled consumer good in the world remains the simple 12-Volt lead-acid car battery.

[The New York Times; image: Circuit board by Flickr user karindalziel]