The solar panel’s dark side

A small amount of solar power can change the lives of those living in rural poverty without access to electricity. It provides light, enabling children to study at night, shops to stay open later and greater security for all. It enables phones to be charged, allows farmers to check the weather and watch online videos about sustainable farming practices. It powers radios and televisions so people can keep up to date on news.

The race is now on to deliver clean, affordable electricity to the 940 million people who lack access to it.

Tens of millions of off-grid solar systems are being sold in developing countries each year, and the market is expected to grow exponentially with predictions suggesting 740 million people will benefit by 2022.

While delivering clean electricity to the world’s poorest solves one problem, it creates another – an epidemic of toxic e-waste pollution. Why should we take it seriously?

One of the most promising and rapidly growing off-grid solar technologies is pay-as-you-go solar home systems, which provides both light and electricity to run a number of low power appliances such as phones, radios and TVs.

The system contains solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, electric wires and printed circuit boards. If not managed properly, each one of these components poses health risks.

Solar cells contain silicon, the dust of which can cause long-term lung disease when inhaled over time. Printed circuit boards contain lead, cadmium and nickel. Lithium-ion batteries contain toxic lithium salts and heavy metals including cobalt, chromium, lead and nickel.

Between 60 and 90 per cent of electronic waste is traded illegally and dumped in poor nations

People can be exposed to these toxic chemicals when recycling or when trying to carry out repairs. The chemicals can also leach into the surrounding water courses. The systems typically come with an array of other electronic appliances that also contain toxic materials.

Exposure can occur through the trade in solar e-waste. According to a 2015 United Nations Environment Programme report, between 60 and 90 per cent of electronic waste is traded illegally and dumped in poor nations.

Unlike other forms of imported e-waste, used solar panels can be brought into a country legally, being classified as ‘second hand’, before eventually entering e-waste streams.

The safe recovery and treatment of off-grid solar e-waste in developing countries face particular challenges. These range from the prevalence of illegal low-quality imports, the lack of adequate recycling infrastructure, the low value of what can be recovered from each unit and the fact that foreign producers bear no responsibility.

Only $3 of aluminium, copper and glass can be recovered from a standard solar panel, while the full cost of recycling is between $12 and $15.

In contrast, dumping a panel in a standard landfill, costs much less – about $1 in America in states that allow this.

Circular solar solutions

The majority of current pay-as-you-go solar systems in delevoping countries are manufactured, imported and installed by European, American or Chinese companies which hold little legal responsibility for the resultant waste.

Given the predicted growth of the off-grid solar market in low-income countries, multilateral solutions are needed urgently. The principles of a just circular transition offer a possible solution.

A circular economy aims to keep materials and products in circulation for as long as possible by designing out waste, reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, sharing and recycling products.

A just transition framework for the circular economy takes this a step further, aiming to reduce waste and stimulate product improvements, while contributing to sustainable human development.

Circularity can help meet a range of the United Nations Sustainable Development
Goals (SDGs). For solar e-waste specifically, circularity not only offers a solution to pollution’s impacts on people and the environment (SDG 12) and a way to achieve better access to clean water and energy (SDG 6 and 7), but also the potential to generate local economic growth (SDG 1).

By designing solar home systems so they can be safely dismantled and high-quality raw materials extracted more easily, safer jobs can be created for informal waste pickers and recyclers, contributing to SDG 8, to ‘promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work forall’.

Examples of circular design already exist. Azuri Technologies, which provides PayGo solar systems to off-grid communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, is designing systems to be easily refurbished and repaired, and running their own refurbishment centres.

Tackling the issue requires national and international policy coordination

Companies cannot solve the e-waste problem alone. Tackling the issue requires national and international policy coordination, including enforcement of the Basel Convention to prevent the shipment of illegal solar e-waste, supporting developing countries to train local workers, building e-waste recycling infrastructure and rolling out ‘extended producer responsibility’ schemes that make producers share responsibility, as Kenya is currently doing.

As the roll out of renewable energy accelerates, so should global commitments to ensure it does not leave a toxic legacy that affects developing countries disproportionately.

The circular economy, with a just transition framework, is a promising way of tackling the solar e-waste issue, while contributing to sustainable development for all.