Off-grid solar e-waste: the industry is growing responsible in waste management

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BBOXX repair technician, Charles, refurbs a control box in the workshop at the BBOXX distribution centre. Kisumu, Kenya. (Photo: Jeffrey M. Walcott/GOGLA).

Off-grid solar products have been transforming lives across the world, bringing energy access to many who live in remote rural areas. Since 2010, over 120 million people have benefited from off-grid solar products, with access to electricity, improved income, and better health and education opportunities. With the lasting economic, social and environmental effects of off-grid solar, investments in the sector have been growing rapidly.

All in all, off-grid solar is a clean, affordable and reliable source of electricity. But what happens when off-grid solar products reach the end of their life span?

Sections of the industry have been raising concerns with regards to the disposal of solar products, stating that if not managed properly, they represent environmental and health & safety risks for both consumers and people who might handle products at the end of life stage.

So, what are we as an industry doing to ensure better e-waste management of off-grid solar products?

Managing e-waste in the off-grid solar sector has been on the agenda for a long time, and recognized as an area that should be dealt with by individual companies – indeed, a GOGLA Industry Opinion from 2014 promotes a voluntary Extended Producer Responsibility approach.

In January 2018, during the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum in Hong Kong, the industry came together and decide to act on these risks, working on ways in which they can tackle the off-grid solar e-waste problem. In April 2018, GOGLA, M-KOPA and CDC convened a workshop of industry leaders to discuss the status, challenges and opportunities for improved e-waste management. The GOGLA e-waste Working Group was born from this group and the e-waste Toolkit project proposed.

The industry discussed solar e-waste at the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum in Hong Kong (January 2018). Photo: GOGLA

How much e-waste does off-grid solar produce?

According to a 2016 research report produced by Sofies, in collaboration with DFID, waste volumes from the off-grid solar sector were almost negligible in proportion to the quantity and environmental impacts of the total e-waste stream. The report pointed out that the waste stream for 2014 in East Africa showed there were 460,000t of Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE – from all sectors) and only 800t from off-grid products -Given the evolution of sales over the years, the total amount of off-grid solar e-waste generated in 2017, in Kenya alone, amounted for 3% of the total volumes of e-waste generated. Over the years, however, technological innovations have been contributing to better opportunities to extend the life of off-grid solar products, while also piloting tracking systems aimed at easing the collection of products for recycling.

The Internet of Things (IoT), PAYGo and cloud computing have been helping companies monitor their products better, thus increasing the lifespan of their products, along with its ability to be collected, repaired and reused.

Where does the industry currently stand with e-waste management?

Market leaders have established e-waste management operations and partnerships; in some cases, a high proportion of products at end-of-life are collected and refurbished or recycled. However, for certain product categories and countries, it is more challenging, and gaps remain.

Many companies have a strong take-back mechanism through the warranty claim process, though this represents a small proportion of total products sold. Customers clearly have a less strong incentive to bring back products outside of warranty claims which represents a major barrier. Companies like Mobisol have products with an integrated PAYGo payment mechanism and enjoy a close relationship with their customers, allowing them to remotely monitor performance. In continuously keeping an eye on the system, the company manages to involve itself in preventative maintenance, replacement of parts and collection of products at end-of-life. Additionally, the company has also been setting up recycling networks for all the components, including the batteries.

d.light is another company that has made a determined commitment with their e-waste management policy and practice. d.light offers a warranty on all products; if a customer has a defective product it can be returned to the point of sale, where an assessment is made, and a replacement offered – the product can then be repaired or sent further down the recycling chain if repair is not an option. The products are then dismantled, and their components inspected to find the root cause of failure. d.light refurbishes defective products if possible and channels defective parts to a recycling partner. Plastic, metals, and wiring are mostly recycled locally, while PV panels, PCBs and batteries are shipped to Europe.

How can the industry rise to the e-waste challenge?

The off-grid solar industry is young and growing. With companies shifting their focus to building an e-waste management policy and investors demanding proper end-of-life strategies, the industry as a whole is increasingly taking on the responsibility of waste management. Many companies are actively innovating their strategies to find a cost-effective way to take back and replace end of life products, aligning their services and business models to facilitate better e-waste management.

This task, however, is being met with a number of challenges, one of which involves the lack of recycling service providers, especially in developing markets. We encourage government and donor support (for example through initiatives such as the Solar E-Waste Challenge) in these regions to help build an ecosystem of appropriate service providers and enable improved recycling.

Learn more about e-waste management in our e-waste toolkit.

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