Social impact meets environmental responsibility

As the market for solar lighting and solar home systems expands and more families use solar-powered products, there's a question we need to be asking: how much is this trend actually contributing to environmental protection? In other words, how socially responsible is it to export products that only partially comply with environmental protection standards to countries that lack basic recycling infrastructure? And how will that affect local communities in the long run? To be sure, solar lighting and solar home systems help protect the environment as they generate and consume energy in a more sustainable manner. However, despite the apparent benefits, some of those products contain materials that can have negative effects on the environment. 

How can manufacturers change that situation? 
The first step is to look into some basic environmental standards such as RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive 2002/95.EC) and RoHS2 (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive 2011/65/EU). Those directives apply to products such as lamps and consumer electronics. For batteries, the Battery Directive 2006/66/EC gives clear thresholds for acceptable chemical compounds. More importantly, it lays out the recycling process required for a permission to import hazardous batteries such as lead acid varieties. Another guideline is REACH (EC 1907/2006), which lists over 140 Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) as identified by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). 
While each manufacturer should make an effort to comply with RoHS, the battery directive and REACH, we could make more manufacturers aware of the standards by promoting them through industry associations like GOGLA or incorporating the standards into industry certification systems such as Lighting Global's LA-QTM.

But we also need to do more than simply adopt existing standards. 
Manufacturers should voluntary refrain from using hazardous glues, lead, composite materials, toxic paints/prints and phthalate PVC cables in their products. Another major step we can take is to choose batteries with the least toxic materials and longest life span. This is a simple management decision that can make a huge difference.
While western consumers may throw away fully functional products when they find new alternatives that look more attractive, many developing countries tend to have a vibrant repair culture and secondhand market for various products - something manufacturers of products aimed at African and South Asian countries should keep in mind when they develop new products. 

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Ti el Attar is Founder & Executive Director of Niwa - next energy products Ltd (Hong Kong)


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Comment by Destiny Uwangue 
on April 23, 2014

Good article, I cannot agree with you less. With my experience in the field, taking solar energy to those at the BoP, I discovered that assuming that these people are so poor is not true. More...

Comment by Enamul Karim Pavel 
on April 23, 2014

Thanks for citing the example of Bangladesh. IDCOL is implementing the program with support from our government and development partners... More...

Comment by Christopher Baker-Brian
on April 22, 2014

Great article. Of course the small scale lantern market is important in catalyzing and developing a market in many countries, but... More...

Comment by Jose Antonio Bueso 
on April 9, 2014

The only way to avoid the corruption and other problems is the privatization of the sector. More...

Comment by Dr. Bernhard Scheffler 
on April 7, 2014

Excellent, spot on analysis.   

One further point: More...

Comment by Pierre Telep
on February 26, 2014

A very good metric, the OBIN indicator is a clear and comprehensive metric which supplies a clear and objective overview of the off-grid market trend. More...