What happens to lithium batteries at the end of their life? What about PV cells or wind turbines? How do we responsibly extract and source the critical metals needed for these technologies?
These have been treated as secondary questions in the race to decarbonize our economy. But as the clean energy build-out gathers steam, now further catalyzed by recent federal funding infusions and domestic incentives such as the IRA and CHIPS, as well as exacerbated by current geopolitical situations such as Russia’s war on Ukraine and other supply chain constraints, questions surrounding the management of related waste streams grows more urgent.
Circular strategies that take clean energy materials and reintroduce them to the economy as inputs into new decarbonization solutions can address an emerging environmental risk while creating new business opportunities. By applying circularity concepts as supply chains are being newly formed or being evaluated around Scope 3, you can ensure you plan for a more sustainable economy as a whole.
We can begin to think of this in four case examples:
While plastics have more typically been villainized from a sustainability perspective, specialty plastics play a critical role in enabling low-carbon economy—like light-weight plastics that improve the efficiencies of EVs. There are structural and technical limitations to mechanical recycling processes and so the chemical sector has been commercializing molecular recycling processes to return hard-to-recycle plastics into virgin quality to put back into the same manufacturing processes.
This is an emerging area where perspectives and regulations are beginning to form and there will be high scrutiny on whether the technology will be accepted as sustainable. For example, Europe, through the EU Taxonomy, has specified which materials can be chemically recycled to not cannibalize mechanical recycling, and organizations will need to work within those regulations.
Recovering feedstocks though will be a challenge—especially in vast, decentralized markets such as the U.S.—and care will need to be taken to ensure the process is less emissions-intensive than virgin by considering the transportation of recycled material and other factors.
Companies such as Sumitomo Chemical are looking into these types of technology and building pilot facilities after contracting with off-takers and/or recycled material suppliers.
As the adoption of electric vehicles for all forms of transportation and the use of battery storage continues to grow, better processes are needed for recovering high-value raw materials that would be otherwise disposed of. As the use of batteries matures, there can be a steady supply of recyclable material that could be re-mined in so-called “urban mining” processes, rather than relying on mining virgin metals.
In fact, this approach can be more efficient, as studies have shown that a single ton of lithium requires 250 tons of raw ore versus only 28 tons of recycled batteries to recover the same material. The ratio is even more favorable with respect to recovering a ton of cobalt where 300 tons of raw ore are needed versus just 5-15 tons of recycled batteries. Federal policymakers have identified recycling as a key priority in building a sustainable domestic battery supply chain and allocated close to $7 billion in new research, development and deployment funding for these activities.
Organizations such as Call2Recycle are applying their expertise in consumer-scale battery recycling (think AA batteries and cell phone batteries) logistics to support this emerging need.
Automaker, Volkswagen has been investing and piloting in in-house battery recycling as well as building a new Battery Engineering Lab to enhance design, and contracting with battery recycling startup Redwood Materials to recapture batteries through its U.S. dealer network. This move points to a need to reduce dependencies in securing recycled raw materials as well as considering the design of products to take advantage of circularity opportunities.
As the first-generation wind farms are being decommissioned at end of life, renewables developers need to have a strategy for how to recapture value from this infrastructure.
ENGIE investigated this and found:
The mining sector faces competing trends, one where circularity should be reducing the demand of raw materials that need to be mined, but where electrification technology is dependent, and even limited by mining. It will be critical for the mining sector to understand the potential scenarios and to connect circularity with key drivers of value and cost and corresponding outcomes (e.g., cost optimization, productivity, safety, risk reduction, legal and statutory requirements) through a sustainability lens.
ICMM, a global leadership organization for sustainable development focused on sustainable development of the mining and metals sector, identifies the circular economy as a critical type of innovation needed, stating “we need to embrace a circular economy which involves increasing material productivity, eliminating waste and regenerating nature.”
Meeting domestic and global climate goals will require a massive build-out of clean energy infrastructure over the next decades. The benefits will be felt in reduced greenhouse gas emissions, lower localized air pollution, new investment, and more jobs. But we also need to be conscious of the environmental risks from material extraction and waste generation that may accompany this transition if we are not deliberate and careful in our planning. Circularity is a way of mitigating the environmental tradeoffs that may come from the clean energy transition without sacrificing, and in some cases, enhancing economic value. Circularity is a way of future-proofing the clean energy solutions we are developing today.
The authors would like to thank Jess Brooks, Camille Cury and Tyler Marcus for their contributions to this article.
Let’s work together to build your decarbonization solution with circularity in mind.