Each year, scientists calculate the date at which humanity’s demands for the Earth’s resources exceed the Earth’s capacity to regenerate what we need in a year. It’s called Earth Overshoot Day.
In 1971, it fell on Dec. 25.
Disturbingly, by 2022, it fell on July 28.
In short, we humans need 1.75 Earths to support our current rate of consumption! That is unsustainable, and we have to make changes.
So, how can we slow down our current consumption rate, while ensuring equitable progress and resources for all?
Think about the products you use every day. They are created, manufactured, used and thrown away. This is often called the “take, make, use, dispose” economy. The things we throw away, even things we think we’re recycling, languish in a landfill, often forever.
If we’re going to secure a sustainable future on the only planet we have to live on, we must transition to a circular economy. The circular economy aims to reduce our reliance on virgin ecological resources by keeping materials in use indefinitely. Rather than retired items going into landfills, they will be recovered in some way and used again in the future.
A circular economy will:
Growing eco-consciousness has spurred the demand for clean energy technologies. Clean energy technologies are renewable, and they allow us to improve our quality of life by reducing pollution, for example.
The main sources of clean energy include wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and nuclear. Among these, solar is the most rapidly growing clean energy technology. From 2018 to 2022, solar capacity has more than doubled worldwide. In the U.S., the solar market grew at a rate of 33% annually in the last decade.
Besides being a clean source of energy, another advantage of solar panels (and other clean energy technologies) is their long lifespan. Solar panels on average last for 30 years.
That means the earliest of solar panels are beginning to reach the end of their lives right now.
These numbers are relatively small. But given the recent surge in solar panel demand, there will be lots of used solar panels at the end of their working lives soon.
The problem is — we have a lack of infrastructure in place to recover used solar panels. There are also unclear requirements on how to recycle used solar panels. Different states in the U.S. handle used solar panels differently, for example.
This is a serious problem for a few reasons. First, solar panels contain valuable resources that should be reused, such as aluminum, copper, silver and more. Additionally, there is the risk of environmental contamination from solar panels sitting in landfills.
Additionally, eco-conscious consumers should be able to buy these products knowing that they are contributing to making our planet more sustainable — even after their solar panels have been retired.
That’s the goal of my research at NIST — to “circularize” solar panels and other clean energy technologies, so that they do not themselves become environmental liabilities. We want to prevent another potential electronics waste crisis with renewable energy technologies.
My background in mechanical engineering, coupled with my experience designing automotive and electrical switchgear systems in the early part of my career, helped me understand product design.
However, soon after I realized that in order to reduce a product’s overall environmental burden, a more holistic approach is required. At the time, I was unaware that what I was calling a “holistic approach” was called “systems thinking,” or considering all the factors in a system.
It was while I was working at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) that I realized the challenges small and medium enterprises faced in using “green” practices in their businesses. For example, it’s challenging for a small business to keep up with the latest regulations.
This also coincided with the notion of the circular economy gaining momentum, and I realized that a lot of awesome work was already taking place in terms of sustainability research. This led to me enrolling at Purdue University for a Ph.D. program in industrial sustainability.
My main takeaway was that prevention is better than remediation! This means we need effective tools to design systems and anticipate their direct and indirect impacts, coupled with implementable strategies that keep evolving.
Industrial ecology is a branch of science that aims to balance environmental considerations with industrial processes. Known as the “science of sustainability,” industrial ecology can be traced back to research related to manufacturing strategies from the 1990s.
Industrial ecology proposes that industrial systems, like naturally occurring systems, are complex systems that should: optimize the consumption of energy and materials, limit the generation of waste, and encourage the use of byproducts from one process as raw material for another.
The goal of industrial ecology, like a circular economy, is to encourage a closed-loop approach, so as many things as possible are continuously reused. We need to do this with systems thinking by considering all factors in a system.
In the manufacturing sector, for example, environmental concerns and supply chain vulnerabilities are something you have to consider as part of systems thinking. Disruptions to a supply chain can hurt economic growth, affecting people, profit and the planet, known as the “triple bottom line.”
As an industrial ecologist, my day-to-day research involves capturing and analyzing the complexities of product life cycles to anticipate long-term impacts of our transition to a clean-energy economy.
My work is also focused on understanding and addressing the flow of plastics into our waste streams. Although plastic is versatile and useful for many applications, end-of-use plastic recovery rates remain dismal. Putting plastic in landfills contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and can result in toxins leaching into our soil and water, which is bad for human health and the planet.
The work includes understanding the extent of environmental, economic and societal impacts. I’m also working to anticipate potential supply chain disruptions that could hinder the use of clean energy technologies. This is a concern because many clean energy technologies rely on rare, high-value materials that are mined and processed in other countries.
Our current research on clean energy technologies integrates industrial ecology. Our goal is to support the transition to a circular economy by designing industrial systems that are sustainable and resilient.
One major challenge organizations face in using circular economy practices is the lack of standards. Manufacturing-related standards thus far have been developed independently for different products and lack a holistic product life cycle perspective. This approach emphasized the design, development and use of products, predominantly from the point of view of increasing efficiency while ignoring product recovery. Consequently, this has led to a lack of end-of-life-specific standards for products. Developing those necessary standards and designing products to be recovered, not thrown away, will be key going forward.
One example of this need for standards is that third-party certification organizations are now issuing “green” certificates for products. While well intentioned, the criteria are disparate. This makes it difficult for consumers to make an informed choice about their environmental impact.
The consequences of having such few post-use standards for consumer products are evident in the current electronics waste crisis. Only 20% of our current electronics waste gets recycled. As a result, we’ve seen environmental, economic and social impacts from such massive amounts of electronic waste in our landfills. Much electronics waste is dumped in landfills in low-income countries. Workers in a disorganized sector then manually try to extract the materials — risking their health. Even children are at risk from either working with electronic waste themselves or living or going to school near electronic waste recycling centers with high levels of toxic chemicals.
We don’t want to repeat this cycle with solar panels and other renewable energy products.
My colleagues and I are working to develop methodologies to measure the circularity of product systems, with the end goal of robust and universal circular economy standards to encourage safe use and disposal of complex products, while ensuring sustainability.
We also engage with industry stakeholders via workshops and seminars to learn about the challenges U.S. manufacturers face in using sustainability practices and transitioning to a circular economy. That information helps us develop usable standards.
Transitioning to a circular economy is admittedly fraught with challenges because it’s interdisciplinary. Governments, companies and consumers will all have to do their part.
While a perfect circular economy is not possible, it is important to remind ourselves that the urgency for change is real.
I am fortunate to be able to work with some especially talented and passionate scientists doing everything they can to help our planet.
We continue to work with and learn from individuals in academia and the private sector, as well as state and federal government agencies. Collaboration, I believe, is key not just to securing our manufacturing sector, but to ensuring equitable progress for all.
Earth Overshoot Day gets closer every year. We all have to do our part to push that back, since there’s only one planet for us to live on.
I appreciate the valuable insights shared in this article. It's alarming to learn about the impact of our current consumption patterns on the environment and the need for a second Earth to sustain our lifestyle. However, it's also inspiring to know that we can do better and make conscious choices that positively impact the planet. We need to embrace sustainable practices and reduce our carbon footprint to create a better future for ourselves and future generations. Thank you for highlighting this crucial issue.