Circularity and e-waste management in the solar industry are pertinent topics, which are currently attracting a lot of attention from key market players, including manufacturers, researchers, investors, governments and now, off-grid solar companies.
Via pv magazine’s UP sustainability initiative, we’ve been reporting on the progress being made in these areas by addressing topics such as the use of lead in solar modules, green finance, circular manufacturing and PV module recycling.
Our previous interview with German startup, SunCrafter, for instance, shed some light on how small tech-companies are showing interest in solving the current e-waste challenge. The Berlin-based company is upscaling used solar PV modules into robust plug-and-play solar generators, which comes with an extended lifespan.
In the following interview, we look at global, non-profit association GOGLA's new E-waste Toolkit and how the project team is working on a circular-powered renewables economy. Specifically, it is actively involved in building a model that will help market players reduce product and operational footprints and minimize e-waste through a viable closed-loop system.
Drew Corbyn, GOGLA's head of performance and investment, and the project manager in charge of the project, talks about the challenges they are facing as far as setting up sustainable recycling chains are concerned, as well as the possible solutions.
pv magazine: What is the current status of circularity and e-waste management in the off-grid sector?
Drew Corbyn: Circularity in the solar off-grid sector revolves around the industry’s efforts to extend product lifespan, enhance product reparability and refurbishment, and promote take-back, collection and recycling. With an effective e-waste management system, we can drastically reduce the number of solar off-grid products ending up as waste once they approach their end-of-life.
Currently, the sector is advanced in terms of business models and principles, but there is room for improvement. We think that growth in circularity adds value to customers, companies and the environment. If we are able as an industry to advance circularity in the sector, we think we can boost the market growth. To advance this agenda, I’m keen to see it as an opportunity. It’s easy to see waste as a cost, which is difficult for individuals and companies to get onboard with. But if we look at circularity as an opportunity to give customers more value, and create jobs and business opportunities, we can easily advance circularity.
All these start from the initial product design, business model strategy, partnerships and investments. Along the way, we can identify the benefits and see the opportunities that exist. This step-by-step analysis shines a positive light and inspire more people to get in and support circularity.
How is GOGLA specifically looking to implement circularity in the off-grid sector?
We’ve been working on circularity for a couple of years now. Our approach to e-waste management follows a collaborative and all-inclusive approach. We have an E-waste Working Group that comprises industry leaders in the e-waste market. We aim to identify and share good practices on off-grid solar e-waste management for distributors and manufacturers. We will also have an e-waste hub on the GOGLA website with case studies, tools and a catalog of service providers in the solar industry. Furthermore, we will have recorded module seminars and briefing notes, and hold a workshop in East Africa to highlight and summarize the objectives of the E-waste Toolkit.
What exactly is the E-Waste Toolkit?
The e-waste toolkit was developed in 2019. It is one of the circularity projects we’re running at GOGLA – besides others like the Global Leap Solar E-waste challenge: a €1 million dollar challenge for companies with innovative approaches to solar off-grid e-waste management.
The E-waste Toolkit comprises six modules that together work to support GOGLA members improving their e-waste management operations:
- Module 1 is a technical introduction to recycling solar off-grid components, such as batteries and PV modules. The module follows the waste journey and provides an overview of how the components are recycled. It also explores the best practices for storing, handling and transporting waste, and identifying recycling partners.
- Module 2 is the design for e-waste reduction, which identifies the product, services and business models that can scale down e-waste production. This also involves case studies of innovative companies and products.
- Module 3 looks at the financials of solar waste management. Solar products have low to negative recycling value; unlike electronic products like mobile phones, companies have few economic incentives to collect them. This module aims to help off-grid solar companies plan their e-waste management strategies and forecast their financial liability as they partner with e-waste service providers.
- Module 4 focuses on solar off-grid e-waste policy and regulation, which guides the current e-waste legislation and its financing mechanism.
- Module 5 is looks at e-waste and the customer, which focuses on the consumer experience. The module aims to spread awareness about e-waste management among the solar off-grid customers and monitor the disposal behaviors upon the product's end-of-life.
- Finally, Module 6 is take-back and collection, aiming to look at how solar off-grid companies can focus on achieving higher collection rates. e.g., by creating incentives and leveraging the existing collection channels.
How is PV waste dealt with?
The first step is to sort out the components and check those that can be locally repaired or refurbished. For example, batteries can be rebooted and put back to operation. In East Africa, for instance, components that cannot be reused will have their parts recycled locally– i.e., plastics, aluminum, wiring and glass. PV panels, batteries, and PCBs are shipped to Europe since there are no companies recycling these delicate components in the region.
What are the challenges involved in collecting old or broken offgrid products, and how can they be solved?
Customers often hold on to their offgrid solar products after their end-of-life. This is because when a consumer electronic reaches the end of its useful life it is common for consumers to store it for a period of time. This is known as hibernation. It is a significant barrier to the effective flow of value within the circular economic model. A simple explanation for the tranches of obsolete electronics sitting in drawers, cupboards, garages and bedrooms is lack of consumer awareness about how to dispose of, or recycle electronics. Also, waste electronic products may also be considered a status symbol for low-income consumers. The typical hibernation period of off-grid solar products has not been researched; but presents an interesting and important knowledge gap to be addressed.
Understanding how customers value their products is key to ensuring that company take-back and collection schemes engage and offer motivating incentives to the end-user. Recovery of e-waste is currently a negative-value activity for companies – meaning that it is an area of expense rather than profit. Yet to overcome the perception of value consumers attach to their products, companies will have to employ smart incentive tactics to at least compensate for the burden of travel or time spent by the consumer in order to return EoL products.
Research carried out by the Resilient Africa Network (RAN9) in Uganda and Senegal showed that off-grid solar users would place a high value on their equipment even if it would break. Owners of name-brand systems typically valued broken SHS twice as high as owners of off-brand systems, and were more aware of opportunities to profit from old products, such as resale or scrap value and disposal incentives associated with EoL batteries. The same study also found that consumers stated they would travel up to 25km in order to return the SHS and receive a cash-value incentive. This data concludes off-grid solar system customers believe there is some benefit to trading in a broken product, and can be incentivised to do so – but the onus is on the companies to provide the incentive. More research and pilot projects are needed to establish exactly how significant this incentive would need to be to be effective
Many companies have innovated take-back schemes to find a cost-effective way to take back and replace them. The lack of recycling infrastructure is another challenge. Very few countries in Africa have recycling companies. In Kenya, just two recycling companies serve the East Africa Region. Transboundary movement of waste is also very difficult or even illegal. Ideally, however, each and every country would have treatment and recycling infrastructure that meets health, safety and environmental standards. In the meantime, I think governments should look at the waste regulations and enforcement with respect to transboundary movement, to facilitate safe and effective waste management practices.
How are you educating the community on circularity?
We don’t directly link to the consumer; however, we’re actively engaging our partners and other offgrid solar companies within our network about the e-waste solar management projects. These companies and other GOGLA members in Africa, like d.light, hold TV adverts, radio shows, and provide incentives as take-back strategies to boost collection rates.
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