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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The Renewable Revolution Hinges on Recycled Metals

  • E-waste contains a large amount of critical metals needed for clean energy technologies.
  • Recycling metals from e-waste is a more environmentally friendly alternative to mining new metals.
  • Supportive policies and designs that facilitate recycling are key to increasing the recycling of e-waste metals.
Renewables

The renewable revolution will rely on a whole lot of non-renewable resources to get the job done. Building out the massive amount of clean energy infrastructure needed for a global decarbonization transition is going to require huge quantities of resources. In particular, the clean energy transition is going to call for a whole lot of specialty metals and minerals used for different green technologies such as solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, and electrical wiring. Indeed, metals currently represent one of the hottest commodities markets for energy traders. As demand skyrockets, sourcing such metals in an environmentally friendly way is key, lest we destroy the planet in the name of saving it. 

The problem is that mining for metals is associated with a litany of environmental ills. Recent reports on lithium, for example, one of the most essential rare Earth minerals used in ‘clean’ technologies, have shown that there is a very dark side to the ever-increasing production boom. Extracting a single ton of lithium requires approximately 500,000 liters of water, which poses a major existential threat to the desert environments and communities where it is being extracted. As such, the discovery of lithium in developing countries is seen by locals as a blessing and a curse. Already, there are legitimate fears that lithium production will suck South America’s ‘Lithium Triangle’ region dry and make agricultural livelihoods untenable and that elite capture of lithium wealth in Kashmir will cause social unrest on top of environmental ills. 

Lithium is just one of a laundry list of metals that will be essential to reaching global climate goals by mid-century and avoiding catastrophic climate change in the longer term. Luckily, there’s another major source of key energy transition metals that doesn’t require any mining at all – your local landfill. Despite the huge and growing demand for metals, we are throwing away billions of kilograms of them every year in the form of electronic waste (familiarly known as e-waste). 

Globally, we threw out a staggering 62 million metric tons of electronics in 2022. Within that total there was an estimated 1.1 billion kilograms of copper, 1.9 billion kilograms of nickel, and 1.1 billion kilograms of aluminum – all of which are essential metals for the clean energy transition. That’s according to the United Nations recently released Global E-Waste Monitor, which tracked the waste of valuable metals for the first time ever this year. 

The scale of this waste, and its mismatch with current demand trends for the same materials, is staggering. In 2022, demand for copper from climate tech alone reached 6 million metric tons, according to figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA). In the same year, 40% of the 2 million metric tons of copper present in e-waste went straight to landfills around the world instead of being recycled for reuse. The same goes for aluminum. And those metals are recycled far more frequently than other critical energy transition metals. 

Not only is this practice staggeringly wasteful, it’s also counterproductive to the entire clean energy movement. Mining new metals is a dirty business that is often associated with significant greenhouse gas emissions. On average, mining new aluminum creates more than 10 times more carbon emissions than aluminum recycling. This is a hugely significant difference, especially when considering that aluminum production is projected to balloon by 80% in a scenario where the world stays on track with its renewable energy goals. 

So why aren’t we recycling far more metals and diverting them directly to the vast and growing clean energy technology demand? Some metals are extremely difficult to extract and recycle from e-waste, like nickel that has been locked inside of stainless steel and other alloys. Others are simply not sufficiently incentivized for the effort to be worth the time and money it takes to find and extract them. Supportive policy measures that require recycling as well as production design that facilitates future recycling are therefore key to closing this waste loop.

Closing such loops is a critical step for making the global clean energy transition feasible, and for reducing its negative environmental externalities. E-waste is not the only problem in this vein. The clean energy sector itself is also a major generator of waste which could be better managed and recycled. While time is of the essence for achieving a timely clean energy transition, taking the opportunity to pause and reflect on better production cycles is critical to avoid needless waste and bitterly ironic poor resource management in the effort to save the planet. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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