Rapid Shift to Evolving Renewable Energy Technologies Poses New Waste Challenge for Europe

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Science In Hd)

A rapid transition to renewable energy is necessary if Europe is to achieve its climate objectives. Developing the infrastructure to enable this change will require substantial resources and generate large volumes of waste as equipment reaches the end of its service life. Applying circular economy principles in this sector provides a win-win approach to address both these issues, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing released today.

Introducing measures such as stronger eco-design requirements, increased emphasis on repair and upgrading, and material-specific recycling targets will address the waste and resource challenges and underpin the sustainability of renewable energy. The briefing ‘Emerging waste streams’ highlights that there is a unique opportunity for the European Union to anticipate this change and to introduce policies which apply circular economy principles to this emerging sector from an early stage.

Key messages:

1. Waste arising from the development and use of renewable energy infrastructure is resource-rich and includes rare earth elements as well as other valuable materials such as steel, copper and glass.

2. The fast pace of technological development means that equipment can be subject to relatively rapid obsolescence and can generate complex waste streams, thus presenting technical and logistical challenges for managing this infrastructure at the end-of-life stage.

3. Recovering materials and reintroducing them into the production cycle faces challenges: complex logistics (high volumes and material often needing to be recovered from remote locations); design that does not consider end of life or recyclability; and the presence of hazardous substances. 

4. Policy makers and industry can address the waste and resource challenges associated with the shift to renewable energy technologies through circular economy approaches such as eco-design, material-specific recycling targets and extended producer responsibility schemes.

Source: EEA