A piece in Asimov’s Science Fiction this month argues just this point. Reflections: The Death of Gallium makes the case that we’re quickly running out of a few rare elements whose existence makes modern electronic innovations possible.
The problem is one of basic chemistry.
The elements are the basic building blocks of, well, everything. The periodic table lists the elements and does a pretty good job of organizing them according to their similarities.
But here’s the thing with elements — you can’t produce them. Once we’ve used up all the copper available on Earth, that’s it. It’s impossible to manufacture more copper. (Excepting nuclear transmutation, but that can’t be done on a large scale, and usually the end result is radioactive anyway.)
Other materials that we must recycle — plastics, glass, and paper — are made up of many elements. Plastics are primarily hydrocarbon chains created from petroleum products. Glass is mostly silicon and oxygen, both available in abundance on the earth. Paper is an organic material derived from wood pulp. All of these materials are fairly readily obtained, at least as of now.
Generally, it’s relatively easy to put elements together to make compounds, or to pull compounds apart to get to their constituent elements. But if you don’t have the source elements to begin with, you’re out of luck.
Recycle those electronics, kids.