We created the Technosphere, but is it the birth place of the circular economy
Human activity has created the ‘technosphere’, a landscape which is composed of the materials we have developed, created and thrown away. Far from being a miserable landscape that may initially come to mind, like the desolate garbage filled scene in WALL-E, it could actually be the basis on which we can create a more sustainable way of managing our resources.
Just like we have exploited the natural resources of the lithosphere, we can exploit the technosphere by extracting valuable materials from the so called urban mines. Landfills are a major waste problem yet there is hidden value contained in mounds of industrial or electronic waste, then there is road dust which contains precious metals from automotive catalysts and hazardous waste can potentially be transformed into useful materials. It is this reclamation of waste and recovery of valuable components to be reused in new products that is the basis of the circular economy.
The philosophy of the circular economy is essentially to become self-sufficient in the acquisition of our materials by developing a closed loop recycling system, thereby alleviating our dependence on natural resources that are increasingly becoming less abundant.
Many of the green technologies rely on the specialist properties of rare elements to work efficiently and it is difficult to replicate their performance with more common base metals. However, this reliance on rare elements presents a significant supply risk and raises questions about the future availabilities of these elements if they are continued to be mined from the ground.
Electronics, photovoltaic solar cells, batteries, permanent magnets and catalysts require precious metals, platinum group metals, rare earth elements and other elements such as indium, germanium and lithium all of which have important physical and chemical properties but are naturally rare.
The low concentration of these elements in the ores means that their extraction is very energy intensive and so there are significant CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions footprints associated with these elements, often undermining some of the renewable energy technologies which use them. The concentration of the elements in secondary sources is often much higher than in primary ores and so their recovery requires less energy, highlighting economic and environmental benefits of the circular economy.
The circular economy requires highly efficient recycling technologies and this can be difficult due to the nature of the waste originating from the design of the materials – designed for use and not with recycling in mind. Happily, with technologies such as Tetronics’ DC plasma systems high recovery efficiencies can be achieved from many types of waste, such as waste electronics and automotive and industrial catalysts.
The petrochemical industry presents perhaps the best example of a circular economy currently in practice. Catalysts are used in many of the refining processes and plenty of these catalysts contain platinum or other platinum group metals (PGMs). These metals are very expensive and so there is huge importance on their recycling. Spent, or end of life, catalysts are sent to recycling systems to recover the PGMs, which are then reprocessed into new catalysts. Consequently, the petrochemical industry has a huge stock of PGMs but has very little reliance on the supply of primary sourced metal.
The close relationship between the producers, users and recyclers in the petrochemical industry shows that for a successful circular economy there is a requirement for large scale cooperation or at least economic incentives to act as the driving force for the development of the circular economy in other markets. With increased importance on the cutting of CO2 emissions and reducing energy use, the exploration of the technosphere will become much more prevalent. Tetronics International has the technology and the expertise to be able to part of a circular economy relationship with the ability to offer enhanced recovery technology for the recycling of many materials.
The exploitation of the technosphere is an excellent route to reducing the waste which we have now and will produce in the future and which can in itself be dangerous to the environment, but it is also the key for the implementation of a wide-reaching circular economy. The circular economy aims to create a more sustainable way of obtaining and managing resources, in order to reduce the stress on the natural environment and to enable the production of technology that minimises susceptibility to supply issues and price volatilities of our key materials.