Billions of solar panels around the world will soon reach the end of their life, but when thrown away, essential materials needed to make future panels are wasted.
It is estimated that there will be 78 million tonnes of total waste by 2050. This represents around 4 billion panels. But these panels were not designed to easily extract the items they contain again for reuse, so it is likely that the majority of panels will simply be shredded during recycling. This contaminates the materials, making them difficult to recover.
Globally, there is a desperate need to design electronic devices that allow easy extraction of their materials so that we can reuse them in new products and avoid waste. If we don’t change the way we use materials, we will limit the deployment of renewable and climate-friendly technologies that are needed for the next phase of society and to mitigate climate change. The materials that we will need will be lost in the waste that we have created.
For the solar waste mentioned above, if the materials could be recovered efficiently, they would be worth an estimated $ 15 billion (Â£ 11.2 billion) and could manufacture 2 billion new solar panels. It’s not just financial benefits: 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are linked to the extraction, manufacture and use of goods. If the world doesn’t reduce this by extracting less material from the earth, we won’t be able to tackle climate change.
It is vitally important to avoid a scenario where technologies will have to compete for materials, limiting deployment and weakening society’s ability to mitigate the climate crisis. For example, semiconductors – materials widely used in computer chips – are also needed for low-power solar panels and lighting, the magnets needed for wind turbines are also needed for low-emission vehicles. of carbon. Already, some elements, like indium, are being engineered from emerging solar technologies due to supply concerns.
Reuse will have benefits
Mankind has developed an insatiable appetite for the consumption of materials. In 2020, an estimated 100 billion tonnes of materials were mined from the earth, of which only 8.6% was returned to the economy. As a result, this electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream on the planet with 53.6 million tonnes generated in 2019 worldwide.
A recent report by sustainability consultancy Giraffe Innovation working with Swansea University showed that 1.6 tonnes of e-waste was generated in the UK in 2019. This contained around 379,000 kg of critical material, with a potential value of Â£ 148million. Due to a lack of recycling infrastructure, poor design for end-of-life and inefficient recycling processes, the majority of these critical materials in waste will be lost.
These critical elements are not recovered and recycled efficiently, which means that this technology is inherently unsustainable today. The overall recycling rate is less than 1% for 30 critical elements required for future technologies.
A major design flaw is that we tend to ‘stick’ things together, leaving little choice but to break the products up into small fragments of mixed material which are then difficult to separate. Another problem is highlighted in recent research on increasing recovery of critical raw materials from electronic waste. Firstly, they are scattered in small quantities in all areas, and secondly, sophisticated equipment is needed to identify the position of these elements. This is even before the separation and recovery processes can begin. Better design is the key.
Design for end of life
Better design for end-of-life, more processing and recycling infrastructure is needed to extract and reuse materials and adopt a circular economy approach. This will benefit consumers, with better design of products that last longer and are easily upgradeable or repairable.
For emerging technologies to be truly sustainable, it is vital that the world consider extracting critical materials when a product reaches the end of its useful life.
There is an opportunity to design emerging technologies with the circular economy in mind from the start. Waste must be seen as a resource, offering maximum benefits to society and to truly sustainable technologies.
Matthew Davies is Associate Professor at the University of Swansea. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.