The challenge of recycling stupidity

No, this article is not about the challenge of re-electing the current bunch of wombles getting overpaid in Wellington.  It is about their utopian dream of a future with a green energy landscape populated by rows of rotating wind turbines, fields of sparkling solar panels, and smooth-running, silent electric cars; because if they have their way, that utopian vision is almost within reach.

Chemical & Engineering News looks into the problems that recycling renewables present. Quote:

[…] if the materials that enable those technologies aren’t reclaimed, the future’s clean energy will be anything but, with views marred by graveyards of old turbine blades, decrepit solar panels, and corroding batteries. Many initiatives are under way to prepare for the arrival of this new type of waste. But in most cases, the solutions are works in progress at best.

The potential quantities of waste are enormous. By 2025, waste batteries removed from electric vehicles will total 95 gigawatt hours worth, according to an estimate by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That pile will weigh roughly 600,000 metric tons.

A similar amount of old solar panels will have accumulated by then, according to projections by the International Renewable Energy Agency. IRENA anticipates solar panel waste could reach 78 million metric tons by 2050. And Europe could see 300,000 metric tons per year of decommissioned wind turbine blades in the next two decades, says the trade association WindEurope.

Thanks to rising demand for renewable energy, manufacturers already face spiking costs and supply constraints for raw materials such as cobalt and lithium. What’s more, it takes a lot of human ingenuity and effort to make turbine blade composites, high-purity photovoltaic silicon, and highly structured battery cathodes. Those cleverly engineered materials deserve more than a one-way ticket to trash town.

However, recovering materials from discarded devices remains impractical. They are manufactured to not come apart, even under extreme force or environmental conditions, so they can do their job for as long as possible. And they are made by mixing valuable materials with less valuable ones. Getting the good stuff back out is like unscrambling an egg.

Materials scientists, manufacturers, and waste handlers are working on ways to efficiently reclaim renewable energy materials. But so far, not enough of these devices have reached the end of life to make investing in recycling facilities worthwhile. It’s not clear whether a profitable industry will be born in time to prevent clean energy from adding to the planet’s already growing pile of waste.


[…] While other wind turbine components, including the tower, gearbox, and generator, are readily recyclable, blades present a challenge. They are typically made from a composite of glass fiber and epoxy or another thermoset resin. The cross-linked polymers cannot be melted down and recycled, in contrast to thermoplastics such as polypropylene. […]

Even blades from the early generation of wind farms weigh up to 8 metric tons apiece. “This is a big honking blade—you could just throw it in the landfill, but some places won’t accept them,” says Karl Englund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University.

Englund stresses that a decommissioned turbine blade is a costly nuisance. For wind project operators, transporting even one blade is a logistical nightmare. There is no use for them. […] end of quote.

Maybe New Zealand could recycle the blades as retaining walls for slip prone areas or as a sea wall to stop the 1.6mm yearly sea level rise that might be happening? The article continues:


Each year, approximately 300,000 metric tons of lithium-ion battery waste is generated around the world. […] Most of those batteries come from mobile devices, but that waste will soon be overshadowed by old electric car batteries. Sales of plug-in electric vehicles are expected to surpass 2.6 million in 2020.[…]

Car batteries reach the end of their lives when they can be charged to only 80% of their capacity, according to Matt Keyser, who leads the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s battery R&D efforts. NREL estimates their useful lives to be about 15 years. After that, they can be reused in stationary storage applications or recycled.

Keyser says NREL’s tests show that used car batteries are good for storing power for the electrical grid, a less-demanding application. But, he adds, “There are lots of different manufacturers, battery chemistries, management and communication systems, and sizes and shapes of batteries.” Keyser knows of no system that can assess different used batteries or integrate them to operate together.[…] end of quote.

Bring this down to New Zealand size and the issues of scale become even worse with just a small number of many different battery types to be dealt with. quote.

Belgium-based Umicore is both a major producer of battery materials and Europe’s largest lithium-ion battery recycler. It uses a high-temperature technology in its facility near Antwerp, Belgium. There, it can recycle up to 7,000 metric tons per year of all types of lithium-ion batteries, equivalent to what’s inside 35,000 electric vehicles.

Umicore’s process converts the batteries into two fractions. An alloy fraction containing cobalt, nickel, and copper undergoes further separation. A slag fraction can be added to concrete.

The batteries can be fed directly into the reactor, which avoids the need for potentially hazardous pretreatment, Umicore says. The company cleans the resulting gases of dioxins and volatile organic compounds. Energy consumption is minimized by using energy still present in the batteries. “Depending on the exact battery mix, only little or no external energy has to be added to the process,” Umicore says.

Umicore has agreements with a number of automakers, including Nissan, Toyota, and Tesla, to recycle old lithium-ion batteries from their vehicles. It then sells the resulting alloys back to battery producers and car companies.

In the U.S., lithium-ion batteries are not considered hazardous waste and can be discarded in the normal municipal waste system.

[…]Extracting high-purity metals from streams of mixed metals is very expensive. Industry watchers agree that high-temperature recycling methods like Umicore’s produce metals that are not cost competitive with newly mined metals and that the economics of battery recycling require a fee to be paid by the generator of the waste. Umicore declined to respond to C&EN’s questions about the market value of the reclaimed metals or the cost of extracting them. […]


[…] Problems associated with improper disposal of waste PV panels can include leaching of heavy metals such as lead, according to a European Commission study.

In a bid to avoid such environmental issues and to maximize material recovery, the EU has funded research including the Full Recovery End of Life Photovoltaic (FRELP) project. Italian mining technology firm Sasil, one of the project’s members, has been running a pilot facility based on technology developed by FRELP. Opened in 2015, the facility can take in 3,500 metric tons of PV panels annually. Other project members include the Italian glass technology institute Stazione Sperimentale del Vetro. [The EU estimates that the region currently generates 30,000 metric tons per year of waste PV panels and that this will rise to about 500,000 metric tons per year in the next two decades.]

The FRELP process recovers silicon and other metals by heating the panels in a furnace; an acid dissolving step and filtration then recover silicon. Other metals are recovered via electrolysis. Sasil says it is able to recover 93% of materials from used PV panels. Most of the remaining material is plastic, which is burned in the furnace to provide additional energy.

While the FRELP process marks a new European standard in PV panel recycling, it is not problem-free: For every 1,000 kg of PV panel waste, about 20 kg of metals, including tin, aluminum, lead, and zinc, are recovered as hydroxides and landfilled. A further 2 kg of material is likely lost as nitrous oxide emissions during electrolysis, and 5 kg of ash results from the reduction of fluorine at the furnace phase.  end of quote.

Releasing nitrous oxide is no laughing matter, it is an evil greenhouse gas! quote:

The quality of the silicon recovered is not high enough for reuse as a photovoltaic material but is suitable to be used in specialty aluminum and steel alloys, Sasil project manager Lodovico Ramon says.

Industry experts and watchdogs agree that if old solar panels, wind turbine blades, and electric car batteries pile up for lack of good recycling options, waste will become a black eye for these supposedly clean industries.  end of quote.

Don’t you just love the smell of green schadenfreude in the morning?


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WH is a pale, stale, male who does not believe all the doom and gloom climate nonsense so enjoys generating CO2 that the plants need to grow by driving his MG.

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