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Our plastics are loaded with rare-earth materials, and scientists don’t know why

Praseodymium. Dysprosium. Neodymium. These are the extremely precious, rare-earth materials that are inside every iPhone and similar electronics. To acquire them is not just costly, but has led to incredible levels of environmental destruction.

Yet scientists have just discovered that rare-earth materials can actually be found in everyday consumer plastics—including water bottles, children’s toys, yogurt containers, and cosmetic cases. Our disposable plastics are filled with very small amounts of the earth’s most finite treasures.

“The irony is they’re extremely valuable,” says Andrew Turner, an associate professor in environmental sciences at the University of Plymouth, who led the study. “They’re critical elements for modern technology. And yet we’re finding that they’re becoming contaminants.”

Scientists have understood for some time that our plastics can include unexpected materials. Recycled black plastics, in particular, are commonly infused with dangerous levels of bromine or even lead. That’s because TVs and other plastic-using electronic devices add materials such as bromine as a flame retardant, and that plastic can end up recycled into microwave dinner trays.

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