By Dwight Clark, CHMM and AJ Orben
In this first of a two-part series, we focus on the rules and regulations, as well as waste management concepts related to solar panels. Once they are removed from a solar field or other installation, what do you do with them? It’s complicated. In large part due to the inherent risks related to solar modules. These risks can be divided into four categories: Legal Risk (EPA and others); Repetitional Risk to the generator or previous owner; Repetitional Risk to the OEM; and Civil litigation risks related to product safety.
Note: we address only the federal regulations, not state level regulations, unless specifically noted.
The Big Problem
With technology changing so rapidly, many companies update their equipment more frequently than originally planned, which leaves them looking for ways to properly dispose of equipment and devices that no longer serve a purpose.
Solar modules often contain toxic metals like lead, tin, and cadmium, along with valuable amounts of glass, aluminum, copper, silver, and other materials. By establishing proper procedures for the recycling or disposal of this electronic waste, companies can take an active role in protecting both their business and the environment.
In 2016, global cumulative PV waste reached 43,500-250,000 metric tons, or 0.1-0.6 percent of the total installed PV capacity (4 million metric tons). In 2020, the US Market will likely produce from 13,000 to 85,000 metric tons of PV waste - generated from modules damaged due to shipping, installation, and natural causes (hail, lighting, etc.). This is in addition to those modules removed before the end of life stage for purposes of upgrading plants to newer and more efficient models.
Because many solar panels are deemed hazardous waste, special care must be taken when disposing of unwanted or out-of-date equipment. PV waste that finds its way to municipal and other landfills ill equipped to handle it may cause contamination; broken devices can leach toxic and hazardous material into the ground and water, raising potential health risks for people in the neighboring properties.
The liabilities for contamination are not limited to the owners of the disposal site. These liabilities extend to the companies that generate the waste - responsibility that lasts for its entire life cycle. In other words, if those old panels your company threw away end up poisoning the environment, investigators from regulatory or government agencies can, and will, trace the materials back to the source, and your company will be held responsible.
Even if your company chooses to recycle through a third party, it’s worth noting that, although they may advertise themselves as "solar panel recyclers", they instead sell panels to secondary markets in nations with less developed waste disposal systems. When communities living near electronic waste dumps in Ghana, Nigeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India end up as primary e-waste destinations, it does not speak well for our sense of stewardship.
In light of growing scientific evidence that solar panels pose a risk of toxic chemical contamination, industry leaders should seek stricter regulation, so we don’t repeat past environmental mistakes.
Let’s first review a few key concepts that the USEPA (and associated state agencies, collectively known as EPA) uses in the rules for the activities related to the solar waste.
Why manage solar module waste in a special manner?
The answer is liability, and it manifests in five ways:
1) Hazardous Waste Regulation
2) Superfund Regulations
3) State and Local Regulations
4) Import and Export Regulations
5) Consumer Products Safety Commission (where the materials are located).
Are solar panels Electronic Waste?
While this term is not clearly defined in EPA rules, it’s frequently used within the industry, so you should be clear how it is being used. There are no regulations on the federal level that specify the term “Electronic Waste”
If I sell or donate my panels for reuse, do I have to be concerned about the solar waste?
Yes. This is regulated in a number of ways. For instance, if the panel is not tested to ensure functionality, it can be considered a waste until it’s tested. If the panel arrives damaged, or is otherwise determined to be a waste, there may be superfund implications if it is not disposed of properly.
What makes something a hazardous waste?
The EPA defines “Hazardous Waste” very specifically. It can even differ from state to state. To identify your solar panels as hazardous waste, you must complete a determination based on a “representative sample”. Misclassifying hazardous waste as non-hazardous can result in huge penalties. Conversely, over-classifying non-hazardous waste as hazardous could squander valuable dollars, and unnecessarily increase your company's liability. The accuracy of hazardous waste characterization will also have a direct impact on effectiveness of mandated labeling, storage, segregation, and disposal requirements.
What Steps should an organization take in managing used solar components?
Develop a comprehensive program that provides the framework for meeting all legal requirements, and for directing staff on the day-to-day management of materials. In the US, most recycling is not regulated by the EPA, and there is no regulation in place regarding reuse.
Waste - A waste is any material that is discarded. A material is discarded if it is abandoned or relinquished, recycled, or considered inherently waste-like. In general, a solar panel becomes a waste when the generator decides to discard it, or when it’s removed and can no longer be used for its intended purpose. PV Equipment destined for reuse is not considered waste if it can still perform as initially intended. Therefore, PV equipment discarded due to early upgrades or excessive degradation is NOT considered waste. The EPA has numerous exclusions and exemptions from regulation as a Solid Waste. Because these regulations are complex, it’s important to use an experienced environmental professional in making these determinations.
Hazardous Waste - For a waste to be considered hazardous, it must meet these two conditions: 1) It must first be a waste; and 2) It must be deemed hazardous through a waste determination.
Waste Determination – The party that generates the waste must make the hazardous waste determination, and manage the waste as hazardous if so determined. Waste determination is made by either the sampling and analysis of the waste stream (and comparison to regulatory levels), or by using generator knowledge (typically obtained from the OEM or recycler). If a representative sample of the waste exceeds the thresholds for a Hazardous Waste, the materials will be regulated at a much higher level than municipal waste.
Be sure to look for our article – Part 2 in the series – in the next issue, where we show you how to handle solar module waste. We’ll provide several practical steps to determine the need for regulatory requirements around the management of used solar modules.
AJ Orben is Vice President, and Dwight Clark is Director of Compliance and Recycling Technology at We Recycle Solar, a single-source disposal provider for excess, recalled, and end-of-life solar products.
We Recycle Solar | werecyclesolar.com