It's time to face yet another inconvenient truth. As we rush madly to embrace all that is good and promising about alternative forms of energy, alternatives that is to fossil fuel, we need to think long and hard about the life cycle from production to landfill because, as this HBR article points out, the "Solar Trash Wave" is upon us. The authors note and rightly so, that a "strategy for entering the circular economy is absolutely essential — and the sooner, the better."
The article highlights that we need to recognize that the cost of creating end-of-life infrastructure for solar, is an inescapable part of the R&D package that goes along with supporting green energy. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)’s official projections assert that “large amounts of annual waste are anticipated by the early 2030s” and could total 78 million tones by the year 2050. That is a rosy assumption when you dig down further. To add insult to injury, experts "expect that more than 720,000 tons worth of gargantuan wind turbine blades will end up in U.S. landfills over the next 20 years. Now that's a landfill conundrum for operators to handle if ever there was one!
Sustainable technology and the industry itself, can least afford to be short-sighted about the waste it creates. Whistling past the graveyard, while not a policy, is certainly a common-enough practice.
With the current capacity, it costs "an estimated $20-30 to recycle one energy panel. Sending that same panel to a landfill would cost a mere $1-2." You don't need to think too hard about that. What would you do?
Lastly, there is also a regulatory component to the renewable industry that must be addressed. No one likes to talk about, and understandably so. Some governments may classify solar panels as hazardous waste, due to the small amounts of heavy metals (cadmium, lead, etc.) they contain. I've forgotten what the half-life is on such hazardous materials. And yes, this classification does come with "a string of expensive restrictions — hazardous waste can only be transported at designated times and via select routes, etc."
The authors note that now would be a good time to think about renewable energy/end of life legislation to "ensure that the responsibility for recycling the imminent first wave of waste is shared fairly by makers of the equipment concerned."
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