Disposing of Green Energy Tech in the Circular Economy

By Amanda Winstead

Green energy technologies like solar panels, electric vehicles (EVs), and wind turbines have become increasingly popular over the past several years as the fight against climate change continues. These renewable energy technologies are often touted as providing clean power that has little to no impact on the environment. However, most companies that create these technologies have paid little attention to what happens when they reach the end of their life cycle.

Just like any other waste, green energy tech waste can also have an impact on the environment. The materials used to create green energy tech can be costly to mine and produce, which in and of itself is socially and environmentally harmful. What’s worse is that those valuable and even toxic materials then end up wasting away in landfills.

If these materials aren’t reclaimed and reused, the future will be anything but clean. So while proponents are hailing green energy as a saving grace for our planet, it is critical that organizations also start being more mindful of how those technologies are designed and disposed of.

What is a Circular Economy and Why Do We Need It?

The key to reducing the negative impacts of green technologies is to start working toward a more circular mindset. A circular economy rethinks models of production and consumption. Instead of a product going through the traditional linear cycle of creation to disposal, a circular economy works to continuously reintegrate products and materials back into the process.

For example, a battery produced in a linear economy will be manufactured, bought by a customer, and then thrown away where it will sit in a landfill and pollute the environment with toxins as it breaks down. In contrast, that same battery in a circular economy would be recycled or returned to the company that sold it, which then takes the battery apart and reuses the materials to create another product.

This circular process not only keeps products from wasting away in landfills but also helps reduce how many resources go toward mining the materials to create products in the first place. For example, there are a number of heavy metals and minerals that must be mined to create solar panels, but those minerals are not infinite, meaning the earth will eventually run out of them. So instead of constantly mining for new minerals, a circular economy enables the old materials to be reused, which keeps us from depleting the earth’s non-renewable resources.

To put it simply, the circular economy model uses less raw materials, creates less waste, and thus results in fewer toxic emissions. This helps protect the environment, reduces our dependence on raw materials, and can even help boost economic growth as redesigning for circular use boosts innovation across various sectors of the economy.

Field of solar panels - Disposing of Green Energy Tech in the Circular Economy
Photo by Red Zeppelin: https://www.pexels.com/photo/solar-panels-on-a-green-field-4148472/

More Green Energy Tech = More Tech Waste

E-waste has been an issue for years since the advent of digital technologies, but now it’s getting even worse as the creation of green tech is booming. Everyone is so focused on all the good things that come from green energy that they aren’t paying any attention to the fact that green energy tech waste can still be just as harmful, if not more so, than any other kind of waste.

We are already dealing with everyday electronic devices like TVs, computers, and cell phones piling up in landfills and leaching toxic chemicals. Now, we are adding solar panels and EV batteries to the mix, creating an even bigger problem.

One of the biggest issues is the toxic chemicals that are leached into the environment as a result of e-waste. If left unchecked, these chemicals can start seriously impacting human health, leading to issues such as kidney damage, endocrine system disruption, lung cancer, DNA damage, reproductive issues, hindered brain development, and more.

Of course, when these materials are left in landfills, they can also start damaging the environment by disrupting surrounding ecosystems and causing pollution as well.

Solar Panels

Solar panels are made up of numerous materials that can be damaging to the environment and communities when they are not recycled. Not only are the PV panels themselves made up of toxic chemicals like crystalline silicon, but the batteries used to store energy from solar panels can also be toxic.

Lithium-ion batteries, for example, are being used to store green energy for the electrical grid because the energy that solar panels create is not always used up right away. So to preserve that energy for later use, there is a need for more batteries and battery storage. However, in our efforts to create more batteries and storage solutions for clean energy, we are also creating more waste.

Electric Vehicles

Like solar panels, electric vehicles (EVs) are also getting increasingly popular, especially with recent policy changes. In the U.S., the new federal tax credit for EVs means buying an electric car is now more accessible and can save consumers more money. While this is ultimately a good thing, it does mean EV production will likely increase and the main component needed to make electric vehicles work is a lithium-ion battery.

So not only do we now have more batteries being created for solar panels and the electric grid, but manufacturing of these batteries will also increase as EV production increases. As such, now is the perfect time to start pushing for growth in the battery recycling space.

With over 100 million vehicle batteries expected to reach the end of their lifecycle in the next 10 years, it’s time to start thinking of ways to give these batteries a second life instead of letting them pile up in landfills and leach their toxins into the world.

Recycle, Reuse, and Grow the Economy

Finding ways to boost global recycling of green energy tech that enables a more circular economy is necessary to mitigate further negative impacts on the planet and human health. It’s also worth noting that finding new ways to recycle and reuse materials from green technologies will not only help protect the environment but can also help boost innovation, which can lead to economic growth.

Tax credits, for example, can incentivize improved recycling programs and can help encourage more spending, which keeps money circulating in the economy. The need for improved recycling programs for green energy tech may also lead to further technological progress and innovative project grants which can help create new job opportunities in the recycling technology field.

Finding ways to recycle and reuse materials also leads to changes in how supply chains work, which can lead to innovations that improve supply chain operations across numerous industries, not just in the green energy space.

Recycling Green Technologies

While effective recycling programs for green technologies are not readily in practice yet, they are on the horizon. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has provided guidelines on how solar panels can be recycled, but the industry for recycling these kinds of products is still new and growing.

Researchers are still trying to determine the best way to commercialize green energy tech recycling in a way that is most beneficial for the environment and the economy. You can find some elements of these recycling processes in the U.S., but they’re not yet happening on a larger, global scale.

The EPA also suggests ways that solar panel materials could be reused if not recycled. While regulatory considerations currently keep solar panels from being reused when connected to the electrical grid, the panels could be reused in other situations, such as for electric bicycle or electric vehicle charging stations.

Battery recycling, however, is starting to take priority and is becoming more common due to the high number of lithium-ion batteries that would otherwise start piling up in landfills quite soon, creating serious problems. According to McKinsey & Company, various recycling methods, such as hydro-to-cathode-active-material recycling, are already in the research, development, and commercialization stages which aim to increase material recovery and decrease energy consumption and emissions.

There are also already battery second-use (B2U) strategies being proposed which would use the lithium-ion batteries from EVs and then redeploy them into a secondary market. By extracting the batteries from vehicles and then finding another use for them in grid-connected storage, the total lifetime value of the battery can be increased. This helps reduce the costs of batteries and can reduce dependence on oil while also improving the reliability and efficiency of the grid.

Wrapping Up

Though recycling markets for green energy technologies are growing, they are still a far way from being fully realized and effective. The European, North American, and Asian markets are all working hard to provide more effective solutions, but it will simply take time as they need to secure more end-of-life batteries to test their strategies.

However, progress could potentially be made more quickly if organizations worked to build partnerships that stretch along the recycling value chain, enabling them to offer more attractive solutions. Increased investment in green technology recycling through engagement with R&D teams can also help boost innovation in the industry to get things moving quicker.

Until these things happen, green energy materials will remain an issue and can end up doing some harm if they’re left to waste away in landfills. This makes it all the more clear how important it is for a significant focus on a circular economy. The more we work on building more circular pathways, the easier it will become to reuse and recycle green energy materials.

About the Author

Amanda Winstead is a writer focusing on many topics including technology and digital marketing. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on Twitter.