There’s a paradox in the growing global appetite for greener energy. As sales of solar panels and wind turbines increase, so too does the scale of an often-overlooked problem now being stored for future generations. What happens to all the “green” infrastructure when it reaches the end of its life?
When early-generation green technology is replaced, much of it now finds its way into landfill or incinerators. This is not only a blow to waste-reduction efforts, adding hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rubbish to the global tally every year, but also is also a colossal missed opportunity. Solar panels comprise metals and glass which, if they were separated and captured, could be reused in the manufacture of other products.
Effective, efficient recycling systems are needed if alternative technologies are to be truly green, and they need to be established quickly. Greenpeace and the European Photovoltaic Industry Association expect solar power generation to leap by a factor of 10 in the next decade. In fact, in my home country of France alone, 500 megawatts of solar panels are installed every year, representing 50,000 tonnes of potential future waste. In Europe as a whole, 4 million tonnes of panels are installed.
It is possible, through innovative technologies still being developed, to recycle more than 90% of a solar panel. But, given the volatility in the value of the resulting raw materials, this is a high-risk sector to develop, and research and development is lacking. Basic recycling schemes do exist, but often focus on two valuable components – the glass and aluminium frame, for instance – and discard the rest, including silver, silicon and tin, because it is not yet cost-effective to recycle them.
I am passionate about the need to make total recycling of green technology a reality. My company, with support from the French government, has been carrying out research and development to design a process that will allow that to happen, and I am confident that the recycling of green technology will, one day, be a profitable industry in itself. There will come a time when recycling is so widespread and efficient that recycling companies will have to pay consumers or organizations for most of the materials they take for recycling, sell the materials they extract, and make a profit.
What the sector needs now, though, is a kick-start.
The growth of the green energy industry has been highly subsidized, particularly in China, which now accounts for the vast majority of solar panel production. There, manufacturers benefit from cheap land, funding for research, and enviable overdraft facilities. In other markets, such as the UK, subsidies for consumers in the form of generous feed-in tariffs have stimulated demand. Now, a catalyst for development of the recycling of green-energy technology is needed, not in the form of government subsidies, but through regulation, creating the conditions in which research can be done, efficiencies made, and a profitable industry created.
The nascent recycling sector for green hardware needs a cushion to protect it from fluctuations in the price of the goods. This cushion can be provided by a fund or tax, raised from manufacturers, retailers, consumers, or a combination of all three.
Ultimately, the more efficient and cost-effective recycling becomes, the smaller this cushion will need to be. However, by apportioning at least some of the responsibility for recycling to manufacturers will help them to factor in the end of a product’s life cycle at the design stage. Currently, for instance, the copper and engine components of wind turbines are easy to recycle, but the carbon fibre that forms the major part of the structures is virtually impossible to recycle efficiently.
In the European Union, regulations governing the treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) include solar panels and indicate the way forward for the handling of green hardware. In the Czech Republic, for instance, companies that sell solar panels must contribute to a fund that finances the collection and recycling of old units. France this year will introduce a visible fee (also known as “eco-taxe”) and, in Romania, a charge is added to the price of goods at the point of sale to subsidize recycling – raising not only money to aid recycling but also raising consumer awareness of the life cycle of the products they buy.
A healthy economy requires constant production and consumption. But with a scarcity of natural resources, and to achieve a sustainable future, we must strive for a circular economy, in which products that have reached the end of their life are no longer seen as waste but as a valuable resource.
Author: Hamza Tahiri is Founder of Ionia Consulting and Co-Founder of Photocycle Industries. His background is in electrical engineering and business administration and he will be participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos.
Image: A power generating wind turbine is reflected in solar panels near Mainz REUTERS/Thomas Bohlen