CHS’ founder, Winin Pereira, whilst acknowledging the advantages of solar power, focussed on issues relating to the toxic materials used in solar panels.
Pereira saw the need for safe disposal methods for the earlier panels and research into materials replacing those currently used in solar panels being replaced. ‘Energy and Lifestyles’ (co-author Subhash Sule,1988) listed some of the highly toxic materials in thin film cells – selenium, cadmium and titanium dioxide – and pointed out that some very strong acids are used to etch the surface of the solar cell to improve light entrapment, commenting “These materials, and their recycling, have to be handled carefully”.
In 2004, a Californian government report issued during the governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger (who continues to campaign on environmental issues), also stressed potential risks during the manufacturing process:
At sites with installed PV modules, release of trace elements from sealed modules is unlikely except due to explosion or fire.
Leaching of trace metals from modules is not likely to present a significant risk due to the sealed nature of the installed cells and the plan for recycling of spent modules in the future.
The most likely routes for environmental release of trace elements are from accidental spills during the manufacturing process. At sites with installed PV modules, release of trace elements from sealed modules is unlikely except due to explosion or fire. Leaching of trace metals from modules is not likely to present a significant risk due to the sealed nature of the installed cells and the plan for recycling of spent modules in the future.
A variety of off-site treatment methods are utilized to manage the chemicals produced by photovoltaic facilities. The types of treatment facilities used include publicly-owned treatment works, metals recovery systems, solvents/organics recovery systems, and energy recovery systems.
The goal of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) is environmental sustainability and clean production for industry. Its members ‘envision a toxic-free future in which each new generation of technical advances includes parallel and proportionate advances in social and environmental justice’.
Five years after the 2004 report, STVC produced a White Paper with a section on hazardous materials used in solar PV cell production: “Potential End-of-Life Hazards for Solar PV Products”. It recommended:
- reduction and eventually elimination the use of toxic materials and development of environmentally sustainable practices.
- ensuring that solar PV manufacturers are responsible for the lifecycle impacts of their products through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
- proper testing of new and emerging materials and processes based on a precautionary approach
- expansion of recycling technology and design products for easy recycling
- and protection of the health and safety of industry workers and the community throughout the global PV industry, including supply chains and recycling.
There is agreement that solar panels become toxic waste at the end of their working lives if they are not properly recycled.
Environmental Progress notes that only in the EU are solar panel makers required to collect and dispose of solar waste at the end of their lives and even there, solar panels are currently exempt from the 2010 WEEE regulations requiring manufacturers to take back all equipment at the end of its life. With regard to the recycling of silicon-based modules and non-silicon based panels it has two goals:
- To encourage the industry to develop products that are easier to recycle and use fewer raw materials
- and to lead producers to factor in the cost of the collection and end-of-life treatment of their products into the cost paid by the consumers.
The European photovoltaic industry has set up its privately funded take-back and recycling schemes PV CYCLE which has been operating across Europe since 2007. There is a Compliance Inspectorate which allows manufacturers and component importers to register as WEEE-compliant, providing waste holders and customers with relevant information on their legal status. The EU is convinced that the manufacturers’ voluntary take-back scheme is effective.
But is this yet another case in which the risks of self-regulation by industry should not be countenanced?