The North American recycling industry will need to adapt to meet growing demand expected from an expanding renewable energy sector, to avoid generating massive amounts of waste and greenhouse gases linked to primary resource extraction.
Recent news reports have battery manufacturers beginning to address the challenge, with solar producers lagging behind.
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“Globally, there is a desperate need to design electronics to allow easy extraction of their materials so we can reuse them in new products and avoid waste,” reports Fast Company. “If we don’t change the way we use materials, we will limit the much-needed deployment of renewable and climate-friendly technologies for the next phase of society, and to mitigate climate change.”
With manufacturing on an upswing to meet a rising tide of demand for batteries for electric vehicles and stationary storage, the global industry anticipates a five-fold increase in the number of lithium-ion batteries available for recycling by 2030. In response, newer and larger battery recycling plants are being planned in many North American cities, Inside Climate News reports.
The plants are “important because the growth of electric vehicles and battery storage systems will eventually lead to millions of tons of batteries that are unusable unless they are recycled,” Inside Climate writes. But the industry has an important advantage: batteries have been recycled for decades, and although demand and plant size are both increasing, the actual process can continue largely unaltered.
Still, the industry will have to expand to meet demand on a regional basis, rather than shipping used batteries to China for recycling, where industry growth is more advanced.
The solar industry faces a different challenge, Fast Company writes, with the equivalent of roughly four billion panels expected to generate around 78 million tonnes of waste by 2050. The panels will likely be shredded, instead of being reused, since they aren’t designed in a way that makes it easy to separate individual elements or components.
Redesigning solar gear according to circular economy principles could be worth about US$15 billion and reduce the considerable greenhouse gas emissions linked to extraction, manufacture, and use of those components, Fast Company says. And “if the world does not reduce this by digging less materials from the Earth, we won’t be able to tackle climate change.”