Time to act on PV waste management

18 April 2019 |

Following a recent blueprint on use of antimony in glass used in solar modules by MNRE, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) is expected to announce a policy on waste management by end-April 2019. This process follows an order issued by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in January 2019 to formulate a policy for waste management of solar modules containing antimony. The NGT order was, in turn, in response to an individual plea filed in August 2017.

Antimony constitutes less than 0.3% of the textured glass used in manufacturing of solar modules. The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers that in its form of use in modules i.e. antimony trioxide, it has very low toxicity. However, there is a possibility of antimony leaching into soil and water and having an adverse impact on human health. This possibility is higher for India as most of the existing module waste is likely being sent to unregulated landfills in the absence of requisite recycling facilities.

The NGT order is likely to ignite a serious discussion on PV waste management in India, which remains a grey area. Apart from antimony, a solar module may contain lead or cadmium compounds as well as potentially hazardous fluoro-polymers.

Figure: Material composition of c-Si solar modules, %

Source: Managing India’s PV Module Waste, BRIDGE TO INDIA

Modules have a 25-30 years lifespan. But this problem of PV waste management is beginning to grow already because of increasing instances of quality rejects, breakages and transportation losses, amongst many other reasons for early retirement of modules. In our report titled, ‘Managing India’s PV Module Waste’, we estimate annual module waste generation to increase to 1.8 million tonnes by 2050.

Considering the current scenario, we believe that there is an urgent need to have a clear regulation allocating responsibility for PV waste management so that the recycling cost of a PV system is built in at the time of market supply. The existing central bidding guidelines rest the responsibility of waste disposal on the developers in accordance with e-waste rules. However, these rules make no mention of PV waste. Appropriate quality standards promoting use of environmentally sustainable materials in manufacturing of solar equipment can also go a long way in lessening the burden of PV waste management.

The antimony case provides a perfect opportunity for the government and the private sector to work together towards timely action on PV waste management. 

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