How circular economy thinking offers a more focused approach to recycling

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In our previous post, we discussed how we are developing ways to reuse some of our products, following one of the 5R ways to move toward a circular economy. In this post we describe how another of the 5R’s – recycling – supports the circular-economy thinking underlying our switchgear product lines.

For manufacturers, the distinction between biological materials and technical materials is one of the truly useful differences to be clarified by thinking in terms of a circular instead of a linear economy.

Traditional linear-economy thinking emphasizes the general practices of reducing, recycling, and reusing raw materials. This may work for biological materials, which can pass through the biosphere and potentially return to natural capital – for example, the waste generated in food preparation – but technical materials present a greater challenge because they cannot be similarly processed through the biosphere. Such materials include manufactured products like electrical switchgear – circuit breakers, switches, interrupters and the like – in this case with primarily metal and plastic components but also including certain dielectric materials. It is the handling of these technical materials for which manufacturers like Schneider Electric are being challenged to develop proactive, Earth-friendly processes that ensure that a product’s maximum useful life is obtained while also reducing its overall absolute cost.

One such technical material of concern is sulfur hexafluoride. Also known as SF6, this gas is an excellent electrical insulator and is used by many manufacturers of medium- and high-voltage switchgear where its arc quenching and heat dissipation capabilities are important.

Although SF6 is completely harmless for humans and animals, it nevertheless has a high global warming potential. Because of that, numerous government entities have enacted legislation to minimize the release of SF6 into the atmosphere.

To help our customers be environmentally responsible as well as comply with these regulations, where they exist, Schneider Electric has established systems for recycling SF6 from equipment that has reached the end of its useful life.

In a process guided by the International Electrical Commission’s standard IEC 62271-4, the SF6 is first collected from switchgear and other equipment facing retirement, then filtered and cleaned at specialty gas handling facilities, recovering and recycling 99% or more of the SF6. We then use the purified SF6 in manufacturing new switchgear products, closing the exact type of loop that supports a circular economy. Working with our local partners in the industrial gas industry, we now offer this collection and recycling service in 19 countries around the world.

After the SF6 has been removed, the equipment is dismantled to facilitate retrieval of the metals and other recyclable materials. We typically are able to recover 97% or more of the materials in switchgear that is being taken out of service, again strongly supporting a circular economy.

Once the process is complete, the owner, who has paid a fee for the switchgear’s collection and recycling, receives a certificate stating the equipment has been properly recycled. In a growing number of areas, this certification is being strongly encouraged, if not required.

Obviously, this highly successful solution meets a very specific need, and because this equipment typically has an expected life of around 30 years we expect the opportunity for the large scale recycling of SF6 to be ongoing. However, it’s just one example of the ways by which very focused recycling supports a circular economy. We continue to search our other product lines for additional opportunities for recycling and other types of beneficial use extension. In our next post, we will discuss another of our early successes along these lines having to do with uninterruptible power systems.

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