Beyond e-waste: A circular approach to reducing the footprint of the off-grid solar industry

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Photo: The GOGLA E-Waste Festival hosted in Nairobi in July 2019

GOGLA’s E-Waste Working Group is now the Circularity Working Group – a move that reflects the ambition and innovations of the off-grid solar industry to optimise circular processes to reduce their footprint and maximise social, economic, and environmental impact

E-waste is the fastest growing domestic waste stream in the world, with an estimated 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste generated in 2019 and a material value of USD$57 billion. Circular systems are key to controlling this growth and harnessing the value of materials already in circulation through repair, re-use and refurbishment.

Although off-grid solar products make up just a small proportion of global e-waste, the industry now serves more than 420 million people worldwide and continues to grow. If business as usual growth returns after the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 863 million people will be served by the sector by 2030. Reaching this number of people will mean many more products entering the market. Fortunately, off-grid solar products have come a long way over the last few years, supported by technological advances and the increasing adoption of VeraSol quality standards – with higher quality outputs and increasingly longer lifespans. Further, more and more companies are also implementing e-waste management processes.

The off-grid solar industry has already made strides in Circularity

In recent years, companies, investors, and other stakeholders have been increasingly focused on resource efficiency and optimisation of product-lifecycle; from design and manufacture to use-period and end-of-life. Alongside substantial efforts to better manage e-waste, we are seeing the emergence of many new models for circularity in the industry, including end-of-life take-back schemes, enhanced repairability, second-life batteries, and market development for refurbished products.

In markets where e-waste infrastructure and regulations are yet to reach maturity, the commendable efforts and innovations seen in the off-grid sector – such as those supported by the Global LEAP Solar E-waste Challenge – demonstrate the ambition in the industry to reduce e-waste by building effective circular systems.

Circularity is an opportunity for stakeholders in the off-grid solar sector

Circularity is win-win for consumers, businesses, and the environment. It creates less waste overall, increases value for customers, stimulates the local economy and protects brand reputation:

  • Circularity focuses on the entire value-chain and in doing so companies are identifying ways to enhance repairability through design, optimise manufacturing processes and build relationships with customers that foster responsible repair and disposal practices. Extending the product lifecycle in this way helps to maximise the zero-footprint use-phase and reduce the volume of e-waste generated overall.
  • Circular economy models can promote a positive company reputation by reflecting the values of the company and ensuring that customers are satisfied with a good quality product, warranty, and service.
  • Designing products that are built for quality and longevity, with customer-centric services can strengthen the company-customer relationship. By using the customer journey to raise awareness about product quality, care, repair, and responsible disposal, a company is more likely to attract repeat sales and retain impact, whilst reducing the negative effects of e-waste at end-of-life.
  • Enhancing repairability and refurbishment supports local economies by creating jobs and upskilling members of the community.
  • In many off-grid markets, high quality spare parts for off-grid solar products can be hard to find and need to be imported at significant cost, making repair impractical. Through consumer take-back schemes and by working with local technicians, companies can access end-of-life products and recover valuable parts to be used as spares – saving money and mitigating against supply chain risk.
  • Establishing processes for high-quality refurbishment of broken or returned off-grid solar products can help reach new sectors of the market with lower-priced products – providing higher-tier energy access to customers who would not otherwise be able to afford it and generating additional revenue streams for companies.

Broadening the conversation from e-waste to circularity reflects the aspirations of the industry and allows GOGLA to better recognise and promote the efforts already being made by companies in this area. Effective management of e-waste remains a central pillar of our circularity work, but one framed by the opportunities created by a circular system that works across the entire value chain.

Our focus on circularity reflects the strengths within the industry but recognises that there is still more to do. We aim to further support companies in this area by providing tools and knowledge, fostering collaboration and cooperation, and helping to build sector-wide capacity. Solid foundations have been laid so far, but companies will require continued support to de-risk innovative circular models and technology, promote the development of regional infrastructure and ensure effective, well thought-out regulations.

Find out more about GOGLA’s Circularity programme and the e-waste toolkit. Also, take a look at some of the voices from the off-grid solar industry.

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