We mostly only close materials loops when it’s ‘economically viable’ to do so. By and large, what that means is that it takes less energy to recycle the material than it does to create it in the first place, which is true for aluminum, steel, and glass, but not for materials like plastics or concrete. But the promise of access to renewable energy is that it changes this equation, putting processes that are intrinsically energy-intensive, like recovering the carbon from plastics for reuse or desalinating seawater to make it potable, on the table. It doesn’t matter how much energy a process needs if it is inexpensive, doesn’t limit the energy available to others for their use, and is non-polluting. There’s a virtuous circle here too: the faster that renewable energy systems are up and running, and the closer we can get to achieving this potential, the more that we can apply that clean energy to repurposing the materials of our current technological systems to build out the physical infrastructures of our new ones. Not beating swords into plowshares, but recycling cars into electric trams. We live on a sun-drenched blue marble hanging in space, and for all that we persist in believing it’s the other way around, that means we have access to finite resources of matter but unlimited energy. We can learn to act accordingly.
I don’t know anyone smarter than Deb Chachra. Please read the whole letter.