It is widely mentioned that, the ability to use old and discarded products to create something new sounds a bit like magic. I absolutely understand the appeal and, in some cases, recycling will be a crucial tool for climate technology. The weekly climate newsletter from MIT Technology Review discusses the challenges and opportunities of recycling in the context of growing demand for materials for climate technologies.
The article highlights that while recycling is an important part of the solution, it may not be enough to address the increasing demand for materials used in clean energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle batteries. The rapid growth of these technologies means that there are not enough old and discarded products available for recycling.
For example, solar panels usually last at least 25-30 years before they need to be replaced or recycled. This means that the panels available for recycling today are those that were installed more than two decades ago, which is a relatively small fraction compared to the massive increase in solar energy installations in recent years.
Similarly, battery recyclers are also facing challenges due to an imminent shortage of materials to recycle. As a result, there is a need to start building infrastructure now to prepare for the inevitable wave of solar panels and batteries that will eventually be ready for recycling.
Even if we weren’t seeing explosive growth in new technologies, there would still be challenges with recycling processes. No recycling process is perfect, and some materials may end up being lost during the process or cannot be recovered economically.
Despite these challenges, recycling can still help meet materials demand in many energy technologies in the future. For example, recycling rare earth metals could reduce extraction by half or more by 2050. Additionally, companies are working on creating options that use cheaper and more widely available alternatives to address material shortages.
Accordingly, while recycling plays an important role in addressing material shortages for climate technologies, it may not be enough on its own. There is a need for innovation and investment in alternative materials as well as infrastructure development to ensure a sustainable supply of materials for clean energy technologies.
For further information on this topic you can access The Spark newsletter from MIT Technology Review at https://www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/01/1087488/why-recycling-alone-cant-power-climate-tech/amp/.