February 22, 2011 pv magazine

What can be done about PV waste?

PV recycling: some companies offer voluntary recycling services; at governmental level, the issue has only just been addressed by the European Union. Jennifer Woolwich, CEO of pv recycling, llc. speaks to pv magazine about the considerations and suggestions in the industry.

Developing and managing collection and recycling programs for the photovoltaic (PV) module industry is beneficial in many ways. Some of these benefits relate to environmental and social impacts, as well as contributing to a company’s bottom line. Any PV waste that is redirected from a landfill or a company’s back lot, decreases the risk of materials from contaminating earth, air or water. As a result, there is less risk of negative public health impacts. From this preventive approach, manufacturers can avoid such adverse events and decrease any related financial liability: this directly impacts a company’s balance sheet.

Yet only the European Union has formally addressed the concept of preventing such contamination. In exchange for being excluded from the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, the industry has agreed to quantitatively demonstrate that when it comes to PV waste, it is self-regulating. This includes companies throughout the PV supply chain, selling product into the European market, needing to collect, recycle and track their outcomes. In other parts of the world, this is not the case. There is no formal government regulation and many companies are not voluntarily offering collection and recycling services. From my conversations with module manufacturers, they understand the need for such action, but the question is how to finance this need. One thought is that some want to learn from the European implementation. Others believe that manufacturers are just trying to survive the international economic downturn, while some will only finance such programs when mandated. Regardless of the funding situation and program implementation, the technology to reclaim material from PV waste needs to be further developed.

Lessons can be learned from other industries, such as electronics recycling, and best practices can be observed. However, PV materials, whether they are raw inputs, components or final products, present unique challenges. There are multiple technologies, and variations within technology groups, that require individualized recipes to separate module components. There are also sustainability issues regarding the available reclamation processes. Some of these issues include energy consumption and hazardous waste that is generated. Furthermore, the people implementing PV material reclamation systems need the module manufacturers to finance collection and material reclamation services. This concept is no different than a company paying for garbage disposal.

Worldwide consumers of PV modules, or end-users, do not want to pay for collection and recycling. Whether it is an integrator, a utility or an independent system owner, the polluter does not want to pay. Ethically these groups also do not want to put end-of-life modules into the landfill. Some have petitioned module manufacturers to pay for recycling modules, others just put them in storage, and a few pay out of their own pockets. However, recent conversations with emerging module manufacturers revealed an interest in pre-funding global recycling programs. Not only do they comprehend the benefit of mitigating risk, they also understand such a service to be a differentiating factor in a competitive marketplace. They want one solution, they want economies of scale, and they want traceability.

Overall, it comes back to how much financial risk the industry wants to take in relation to the environmental and social impact of its waste. As government entities, consumers and environmental groups become more aware of the industry’s waste content, they will be demanding appropriate handling of PV waste. Module manufacturers meeting these demands will profit from such efforts.

Jennifer Woolwich, MA, CPHQ, CSSBB, is CEO of pv recycling, llc. Based in Tempe, Arizona, USA, the company develops and manages worldwide collection and recycling programs for module manufacturers and others in the PV industry.