Researchers with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in a literature review of more than 3,000 scientific publications exploring the life cycle of the most common solar and lithium-ion battery technologies, have found that alternatives to recycling may have untapped potential to build an effective circular economy for solar photovoltaic (PV) and battery technologies.
The review does not dismiss recycling, instead it promotes other less-explored aspects of manufacturing and hardware usage to develop supplemental strategies to create a more efficient, cost effective and circular economy for clean energy technologies, allowing these technologies to become cleaner in their own right. According to the researchers, Garvin A. Heath, Dwarakanath Ravikumar, Brianna Hansen, and Elaine Kupets, the emphasis on recycling, while valuable, may overlook the challenges and opportunities that research into other strategies could reveal.
“If you can keep them as a working product for longer, that’s better than deconstructing it all the way down to the elements that occurs during recycling,” said Garvin Heath, senior environmental scientist and energy analyst and Distinguished Member of Research Staff at NREL. “And when a product does reach the end of its life, recycling is not the only option.”
According to Heath, this is because the deconstruction, recycling and reconstruction process takes more energy and generates more associated greenhouse gas emissions than building products with longer usage and service lives does in comparison.
The researchers share that designing products with fewer overall materials, especially hazardous materials, will improve those products’ environmental impacts more than recycling can. Recycling itself is also an imperfect process, as there are currently no integrated recycling processes that can recover all the materials for either technology, and existing research has focused more on lab-scale methods, rather than commercial-scale.
“People often summarize the product life cycle as ‘take, make, waste.’” Heath said. “Recycling has received a lot of attention because it addresses the waste part, but there are ways to support a circular economy in the take part and the make part, too.”
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