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How drives and motors fit into circular economy

14 September, 2021

Recycling motors and drives can result in substantial energy and environmental benefits. ABB’s UK managing director, David Hughes, looks at the role these industrial components can play in helping to achieve a circular economy.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report provided a stark warning that man-made climate change is real, present and lasting. The move towards a more circular economy, for example, is a powerful tool but how do drives and motors fit into this framework? Environmental product declarations (EPD) are a start, but it’s important to consider the entire lifecycle of a product from cradle to grave.

At a basic level, a circular economy seeks to move away from the consumption of finite resources. In a truly circular economy, materials are constantly re-used and all waste is eliminated, helping to conserve resources and reduce environmental pollution. Drives and motors inherently contribute towards a more efficient, less carbon-reliant future, but they still essentially comprise metals, plastics, and electronic components. Like anything, these materials will – at some point – need to be either disposed of, or recycled.

The production of drives and motors comes with an environmental cost, which makes recycling attractive. When discussing motors, for example, there is a 75% energy saving between creating iron from mineral ore and re-melting existing material. This rises to 95% for aluminium.

A pilot project in Sweden established that manufacturing new high-efficiency motors by recycling older, inefficient motors reduced carbon emissions associated with production by around three times the weight of the motors.

There are established recycling schemes in the UK. S2S, for example, collects and recycles VSDs and can extract up to 98% of a drive’s components for recycling within the scope of the WEEE directive. Since 2003, ABB has recycled 200 tonnes of old VSDs, and offers the service to its customers who, in turn, benefit from a sustainable end-of-life solution for the product, along with all relevant documentation towards compliance with standards such as ISO4001.

The ecological payback of a drive is worth considering too, and it is here that embodied carbon becomes a factor. Essentially, “operational” carbon refers to the energy used to keep an application functional, and “embodied” carbon is the sum of all energy required to source the materials, manufacture and deliver a product. Operating a new drive for just half a day can cut carbon emissions enough to offset the carbon impact of manufacturing – and disposing of – the drive, depending on its size.

It’s thought that if all industrial products, including drives and motors, could be recycled, the world’s CO2 emissions could be reduced by around 20%. Factor in the subsequent rebirth of these materials into new, high-efficiency products and the concept of a truly circular economy becomes even more compelling.

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