Magnets are used in a surprising number of places and can be found everywhere from consumer products to high-powered electronics. Magnets have countless uses and have played a huge role in the advancement of technology over the past few decades. Despite being a highly prized and valuable material, magnets as they exist today are bad for the environment and unsustainable to produce.
How Magnets Are Made
Permanent magnets, manufactured to maintain a personal magnet field of consistent strength, are made from a variety of easily magnetized elements like cobalt, iron, nickel, ferrite, and the alloys of certain rare-earth metals. These materials are known as ‘ferromagnetic’ materials, which are combined to create commercial and industrial magnets for a variety of purposes.
To make magnets, manufacturers begin with raw metals, which undergo a process of curing. First, the metals are melted in a vacuum, then formed into a long, thin strip of molten alloy. Next, the mixture is allowed to cool before it is pulverized and made into a super-fine powder. Finally, the powder is compressed and compacted with the microscopic magnetic particles properly aligned with their magnetized regions pointing in the same direction. Finished magnets are smoothed, shaped, and sliced before being added to final products.
The strength of any given magnet depends partially on the method of production, and partially on the type of material used to create the magnet. Rare-earth magnets are among the strongest magnets, and therefore are more highly prized than magnets made from common materials.
Common Uses of Magnets
Look around your home, and we’re willing to bet you’ll be able to find at least a couple of items that have magnets hidden within their inner workings. To give you an idea of just how frequently manufacturers use magnets, here are a few common uses of magnets:
- Credit card readers
- Computers and accessories
- Electric instruments (guitars)
- Medical equipment (MRIs)
Magnets truly are everywhere, and some are absolutely enormous while others are teeny tiny and practically invisible to the naked eye. Magnets create tight seals, increase the power of certain electronics, and help to stabilize others. Magnets have become an invaluable tool for product designers and manufacturers everywhere, but despite their popularity, magnets have earned a reputation as an environmentally unsustainable product, and now, many companies are looking for better options.
Environmental Impact of Magnet Manufacturing
Unfortunately, magnets not only play a role in our everyday lives but also play a role in global pollution and climate change. Magnets are made from non-renewable resources like metals and rare-earth metals, which are mined directly from the Earth, a process that causes significant destruction to natural ecosystems. Like mining for other earth elements like oil and precious gems, mining for materials used to make magnets results in toxic runoff, environmental degradation, and the steady decline of resources.
Can Magnets Be Recycled?
Permanent magnets, manufactured specifically for use in consumer and industrial goods, remain magnetized in perpetuity and can be used practically forever. Unfortunately, despite the fact that magnets can be used time and time again, the vast majority of magnets are not recycled, and instead find their way straight to the landfill once the product has seen its final use.
Because tiny, mid-size, and large magnets exist in thousands of devices, it would require a huge amount of effort and energy to separate them from other elements of a device, meaning it is far easier to just throw the entire device away and continue mining for more resources. Pure laziness means that less than 1% of all rare-earth magnets are recycled, requiring manufacturers to mine for more metals to create more magnets which will eventually be thrown away.
It is simply an unsustainable cycle. Mine → produce → discard. The resources needed to continue producing magnets won’t exist forever, and at some point, we will run out, a fact that has spurred some companies to begin searching for more sustainable solutions to the problem.
Solving the Problem
The obvious answer to the issue is to reuse magnets rather than disposing of them, but as it turns out, even this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Apple, the popular computer and smartphone brand, recently began using MagSafe magnets made from recycled magnetic materials, a process which utilizes already existing magnets rather than relying on raw or unused resources. Apple uses these magnets to improve connectivity between devices and their various cables, in their cases, and more.
While the switch to recycled magnets is a good first step, Apple’s attempt to create a more sustainable product didn’t quite work. Because of how closely integrated Apple’s MagSafe magnets are with other materials like plastic and leather in Apple products, MagSafe magnets are extremely difficult to extract, and typically still end up in a landfill, despite being recycled and recyclable.
By building products to be tight, compact, and difficult to get into, manufacturers make it nearly impossible to separate magnets of any kind from other parts, making it extremely expensive and time-consuming to collect the magnets for re-use.
At Pela, we are committed to reducing consumer waste and have already helped to keep more than 300,000 pounds of plastic from ever being produced. In our mission to make the world a greener, cleaner place, we’ve turned our attention to magnets, and are coming up with exciting solutions to make them more reusable. We believe in a circular, nature-inspired model that allows us to create, use, and re-create products over and over again.
So, how are we going to make magnets sustainable? Here’s where it starts: First, Pela will create magnets that are made from recycled, post-consumer magnetic materials. Doing this will reduce dependency on new materials, and eliminate the need for additional rare-earth metal mining. To ensure Pela magnets won’t end up in a landfill, our next step has been to develop products that make the magnets easily accessible so that they can be collected and reused over and over in Pela products.
How will this work? It’s simple, and we already have a process in place to make everything run smoothly. The Pela 360 program allows customers to send back their used phone cases and other products to be recycled, reused, or disposed of in an eco-friendly way. When a consumer sends back a product containing a Pela magnet, the Pela team will collect the magnet to be reused in future Pela products.
In this way, we will create a circular economy that allows for the recirculation of materials, and begin to address the serious environmental impacts of magnet manufacturing and waste. Pela magnets will be able to relive their early, mid, and end lives over and over again, with no chance of ending up in a landfill.
Want to help reduce global pollution and preserve Earth’s natural resources? Visit Pela to learn more about our sustainable products, and be sure to visit our blog to read more about topics like this!