Gary Moore, sales director at UNTHA UK, argues that manufacturers must consider a product’s sustainability and its end-of-life application equally to be truly environmentally-friendly.
Last year, I wrote an article about solar panel recycling, specifically in relation to why we, as a country, weren’t talking about it more.
It looked at the state of solar in the UK, the recyclability of photovoltaic (PV) materials, the role of shredding and the future for this renewable technology. And it turned out to be one of the most-read articles among customers and prospects alike.
Fast forward over nine months and the pace of this conversation has accelerated. It’s a topic that has propelled itself to the forefront of the industry, extending to include other renewable energies and technologies – including wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries – too.
Fast forward over nine months and the pace of this conversation has accelerated.
However, it’s vital that in its quest to “do the right thing” for the planet and meet policy-led targets – offering sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels – the renewable energy industry doesn’t create a waste problem in other areas.
These items’ component parts need to be recycled effectively to avoid creating an environmental paradox, where these “greener” alternatives go on to become pollutants.
Demand for renewables is growing
Over the past decade, there has been a significant increase in global demand for renewable energy sources and technologies – with countries seeking to reduce their carbon emissions and transition away from fossil fuels. This has, in part, been driven by a growing awareness of the environmental impacts of climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s perhaps, therefore, no surprise that recent reports claim by 2050, solar panel waste is expected to reach up to 78 million tonnes. And in the UK alone, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) states that over the next 10 years, the country will generate circa 30,000 tonnes of solar-related waste.
This is a very similar situation in countries across the globe too, with Australia set to dismantle 100,000 tonnes of panels from 2035.
But what will happen to these materials? Are they going to be recycled? Can they be recycled? And how will demand be met?
These are all very valid questions, but ones which should be asked at the beginning of the design and manufacturing process.
These are all very valid questions, but ones which should be asked at the beginning of the design and manufacturing process, not once the panels have been installed for 30 years and are approaching retirement.
The same can be said for redundant wind turbine blades – it’s expected there will be 43 million tonnes by 2050 – and there could also be 500,000 tonnes of unprocessed battery waste from the EVs sold in 2019 alone.
So it’s clear that without thought being given to the future of these technologies at the very start of their lives, their net renewable status may be compromised as they age.
Recycling is vital for resource security and circularity
Recycling these renewable energy components is not only crucial from a landfill diversion perspective, but also in terms of resource security, and to create a circular future for these renewable technologies.
There have been many articles written around the depleting supply of raw materials, declaring that solar-panel demand will exceed availability – so it’s crucial that individual components are recovered for remanufacture and reuse.
To put this into perspective, it’s been reported that by 2050, the amount of recoverable raw materials – such as aluminium, glass, copper, and silicon – from end-of-life PV modules could be used to produce two million new units. But, in order for this recovery process to become a reality, significant investment and development in infrastructure is needed – as is industry-wide collaboration.
Industrial waste shredding can help prolong the life of redundant renewable technologies by “unlocking” the valuable resources locked inside – facilitating the recycling and reuse of materials.
Shredding enables metals, plastics and composites to be separated and recovered to create new products – helping to conserve natural resources in the process.
A forward-thinking mindset is vital
Overall, the demand for renewable energy and technologies is expected to continue to rise in the coming years as countries work towards meeting their carbon reduction goals and transitioning to a low-carbon economy.
But while designing and building electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines is essential, what happens to them at the end of their life is no less important, and deserves ample consideration.
Ultimately, it’s crucial that these innovations maintain momentum, but the pace of product development needs to be in tandem with a circular recycling strategy, so they don’t end up becoming a case of style over sustainability.
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