How can we address the e-waste challenge and promote a sustainable off-grid solar industry?

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This blog was published on 3rd October 2023.

We are glad to see off-grid solar recognised for its fundamental role in reaching SDG7 and for how off-grid technologies are improving the quality of life of energy-poor homes and businesses in Africa in a recent article published by UNSW. We also fully share the author’s concerns about how many products and installations remain of poor quality, and the negative consequences this has, both on customer satisfaction and on the environment through e-waste generation. At the same time, it is good to recognize the many important steps being taken by companies offering these solutions, to act responsibly and address these issues.

At GOGLA we have been working with industry leaders for several years to address product quality and e-waste challenges and to support companies in their work to achieve sustainability and impact. For example, in Kenya, off-grid solar companies have driven an initiative to establish the country’s first Producer Responsibility Organisation for E-waste (E-PROK). The Producer Responsibility Organisation has the mandate and capability to engage with off-grid solar companies to reduce the e-waste burden and engage informal recycling and repair sectors. It also goes much further, addressing e-waste from the telecoms industry, consumer electronics industry and more. It has laid the blueprint for similar action in other markets.

With our Members, we have also developed a range of industry initiatives to reduce e-waste, and promote sustainable, responsible business practices. Examples include: 

Quality Assurance: Ensuring that companies are providing high-quality, durable products which come with comprehensive warranties, to immediately reduce the amount of e-waste that will be created (and extending the positive impacts of off-grid solar) through long product lifetimes and repair. We encourage policymakers to also embed quality standards into regulation, an essential step to avoid poor-quality products from entering the market.

Circularity and E-waste toolkits: Developing tools and building e-waste guidelines that can be adopted by companies to help address e-waste in countries where comprehensive approaches, such as the one developed in Kenya, and necessary infrastructure are not yet available. GOGLA also works with companies to embed circular product design into their operations, including greater development of modular products where batteries (usually the first component to reach its end of life) can be easily replaced.

The Connect Initiative: Promoting and supporting the creation of an interoperable off-grid solar ecosystem, that allows customers to ‘connect’ products from different companies and make it far easier to replace any components in their systems that get broken. 

Repair and Sustainability: Ensuring that repair and sustainability are central tenets of the GOGLA Consumer Protection Code and by providing clear guidance on how to achieve best practice in each. The Consumer Protection Code has been adopted by more than 100 organisations in the sector. 

Many of the companies in our association have also taken significant steps to build individual approaches to e-waste and sustainability within the countries where they work, often bringing companies in adjacent sectors with them to optimize both their chance of success and their impact.  

There is clearly more work to be done. More dedicated focus on e-waste and sustainability is needed to drive national-level initiatives which can best navigate a complex system with multiple actors. More investment, partnerships and the right policies will help companies serving highly price-sensitive customers innovate in circular design, create sustainable e-waste practices, drive up quality and raise awareness among consumers about recycling and return.

We urge governments, development actors, and those working in adjacent industries such as telecoms and consumer electronics, to work with us to continue to develop effective and impactful mechanisms to reduce e-waste and enhance sustainability. Together we can ensure that the off-grid solar industry continues to drive positive impacts for hundreds of millions of energy-poor people while reducing any unintended negative consequences. 

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