Solar industry needs a recycling plan

solar-panel-grass-recycleeditors-blog-entry3It’s clear to me that solar is still far better than other forms of energy, in particular fossil fuels, on this front … but I have to say one of my greatest concerns with solar is the toxic waste stream it generates.

The problem exists both on the front-end — when solar panels are produced — and on the back end (panels have an estimated life of 25 to up to 50 years), when they are disposed of.

To me, it doesn’t seem like enough attention is being paid to either the front-end, or back-end environmental issues associated with solar-panel production, use, and disposal. For instance, none of the solar companies that gave us an estimate on a system for our home talked about any of these issues.

Most of the focus is: a) on selling solar; b) doing so by telling people how wonderful it is.

Solar is wonderful in many ways, and, though it’s better than many alternatives — wind seems to me to be the cleanest energy form, though, it, too, is not without negative environmental impact — it’s not perfect.

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The focus here is on the back-end issues.

I’d like to see the solar industry in the U.S., and around the world, do more to plan for the future and develop an industry-wide recycling plan for panels.

In fact, I’m in full agreement with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), which is calling for mandatory recycling laws for solar panels, and which recently released a “scorecard” of solar-industry players based on their environmental track record and ethic.

The scorecard ranks manufacturers of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules according to a range of factors including environmental health and safety, sustainability, workers’ rights, and social justice.

More about the
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

svtcSilicon Valley Toxics Coalition is a non-profit organization engaged in research, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to promote human health and environmental justice in response to the rapid growth of the high-tech industry. The SVTC Solar Company Scorecard follows the release of SVTC’s Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry report issued in January 2009 as part of the organization’s Clean and Just Solar Energy Campaign. The report detailed the hazards related to the manufacturing and disposal of solar PV panels and recommends actions that the solar industry can take toward creating a sustainable sector.

“Solar power is key to helping solve the world’s climate crisis,” explains Sheila Davis, executive director of SVTC, in an SVTC press release. “But the industry still faces serious issues that need to be addressed before it can be considered truly ‘clean and green’ and socially just.”

The SVTC press release also notes that, “As the solar industry works to replace fossil fuels, it is in the industry’s best interest to ensure that pollutants from the panels don’t enter the environment. Only the solar producers can ensure that this will happen by eliminating toxic chemicals from their products and by taking responsibility for their environmental and health impacts throughout the entire lifecycle.”

Indeed, if the solar industry is going to play the “green” card as one of its major ones — and it most certainly is, it makes absolutely no sense for the industry to ignore issues surrounding the toxicity of solar panel production and disposal.

Indeed, it ignores these issues at its own peril. First, it opens itself up to stinging criticisms of hypocrisy by anti-solar, anti-renewable energy folks. Second, it risks turning off a good portion of its own market base — including people like me, for whom the green-ness of solar is the major attraction.

There is some good news in the SVTC report. Among other things, the SVTC found that:

  • 57% of respondents would support mandatory takeback and recycling programs in the markets where they sell solar panels.
  • 42.8% of companies are setting aside money to finance the collection and disposal of end-of-life panels and 50% said that they provide recycling services free of charge.
  • 50% have undertaken analysis of their supply chain to document the social and environmental impacts associated with different production phases.
  • 36% of companies said that they conduct lifecycle analyses or risk assessments on new chemicals, including nanomaterials.

“The solar industry needs high corporate responsibility standards if it is to fulfill its potential as a truly sustainable industry,” says Seb Beloe, head of sustainable and responsible investment (SRI) research at Henderson Global Investors, which sponsored the survey in the SVTC press release.

Amen, and hallejuah!

Now, let’s hope the solar industry listens to the greenies supporting solar — and to the SVTC — and moves forward with a forward-looking plan to ensure that it lives up to the green image it is seeking to project.

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