Undergoing a rapid expansion of solar energy installation, India is being confronted with the parallel growth of landfill volume. To address the waste, the Indian government has ordered manufacturers, producers, importers and sellers to store waste until India’s recycling industry reaches commercial scale – that is, approximately until 2035.
All around the world, panels, blades and batteries will soon reach their retirement age. Researchers estimate there will be 43 million metric tonnes of global blade waste by 2050. Without appropriate waste management, this will end up either in landfill or burnt. Can we get out of this waste crisis? Can we really speak of solutions when it comes to managing waste? What if we’re stuck with waste – How can we learn to live with it?
Most efforts to curb clean energy waste products have gone into recycling. But this doesn’t come without difficulties: Wind turbine blades, for instance, are made of epoxy and glass or carbon fiber, making blades as tough and durable as they are difficult to recycle. Some initiatives reuse blades in bridges, or in pellets for flooring, but engineers have not been able to escape the downgrading of the material quality of the blades. What’s more, downcycling only delays – that is, does not prevent – a certain technology reaching the end of its life cycle. Solar panels are similarly hard to recycle, containing elements which make their waste toxic (e.g. cadmium and lead), making the process relatively costly. Companies are investing in bringing down the cost of recycling, but cost effective recycling has actually been shown to have a rebound effect, increasing consumption and therefore, waste.
One strategy in dealing with these issues is ensuring these technologies never become “waste” by “designing for recyclability” : Design a product that upon reaching its end-of-life-cycle feeds into the next consumption cycle, recycle indefinitely, and “close the loop”. Such is the promise of some circular economy models. And although recycling by design is less wasteful than end-of-life recycling, cyclical systems also extract resources, create waste, dissipate energy, and wear down.
Zero-waste is, in practice, an illusion. More than a technical solution, recycling is more of a social construct that hardly targets our consumerist culture and efficiency-obsessed economic growth models. In other words, recycling merely optimizes rather than transforms our current system.
We can’t solve waste. But that shouldn’t mean we can look away from waste. Rather, we must face waste. The ethical (and practical) debate amongst governments, businesses, communities, institutions and individuals revolves not around whether we should waste or not, but around how we waste.