Is a mountain of solar waste on the horizon?

Originally published in Dhaka Tribune on 16 July 2023

Solar panels, known for their environmentally friendly energy generation, are poised to become a major issue in Bangladesh as many panels are nearing the end of their lifespan, contributing to a growing pile of unused and soon-to-be discarded solar waste.

Aimed at harnessing significant solar power generation potential from Dhaka’s rooftops, the government in 2010 made it mandatory for new domestic, industrial, and commercial electricity connections to include solar systems. Subsequently, many people flocked to different markets to get solar panels.

Data by Dhaka’s two electricity distribution companies – Dhaka Power Distribution Company Limited (DPDC) and Dhaka Electric Supply Company Limited (DESCO)- shows that there are currently 80,723 rooftop solar power generation systems installed in Dhaka. However, the majority of them, estimated at around 80%, are currently inactive, rendering them electronic waste and causing consumers to view them as a wasted investment.

Shariful Islam Bhuiyan Russel, a member of a building committee in Dhaka’s Badda area, invested Tk2 lakh a decade ago to install a one-kilowatt solar panel. Today, they are planning to dispose of the non-functional panels as junk to free up rooftop space.

When asked about their disposal plan, the building’s management committee chairman expressed a lack of concern and suggested that a local garbage collector would gladly take them away, thereby absolving themselves of responsibility for their ultimate destination.

Unfortunately, this scenario is common, as the absence of a policy and proper recycling process leads people to consider haphazardly dumping the panels instead of seeking recycling options.

Experts predict that the large quantity of unused solar panels soon to be discarded and ending up in Dhaka’s landfills will have a significant impact on the environment and human health.

Without a policy and appropriate recycling processes in place, these solar waste materials will initially be sent to scrap shops and eventually dumped in landfills. Consequently, harmful substances from the panels will be released into the environment, water, and ecosystem, posing serious environmental concerns.

Solar panels contain chemicals such as lead, silicon, tin, cadmium, mercury, zinc, and chromium, and improper disposal during large-scale dumping can contaminate soil and water in the country. Ultimately, these contaminants can enter the human body, leading to potential health risks and various diseases.

Additionally, the presence of hydrofluoric acid in the panels can cause severe burns and respiratory issues if mishandled, while inhalation of highly toxic phosphine gas can result in respiratory problems and organ failure.

A looming hazard

A study titled “Current challenges and future perspectives of solar-PV cell waste in Bangladesh,” published in Heliyon (an all-science, open access journal) in 2022 estimated that solar PV waste in Bangladesh could reach a total of 5.496 million tons between 2025 and 2060, including 874,134 tons of glass, 77,206 tons of plastic, 121,407 tons of aluminum, 39,487 tons of silicon, and 6,719 tons of copper.

The Department of Environment in 2021 released hazardous waste (e-waste) management rules, but they do not apply for solar waste in the list of regulated waste materials. Consequently, there are no specific regulations governing the recycling of solar panels.

Experts have expressed concerns that this oversight may lead to a significant increase in solar e-waste in the coming years as solar panels reach the end of their lifecycle.

Dr Shahriar Hossain, an ecologist and General Secretary of Eco-Social Development Organization (ESDO), said used lead-acid batteries are often recycled in small local scrap shops, where the acid is disposed of in drains, water bodies, or soil, which leads to contamination by lead, cadmium, and potentially chromium.

“The process of breaking down the batteries, which often involves burning, releases polluted air into the environment, further polluting the air, soil, and water,” he said.

Among the components of solar panels, Dr Hossain pointed out that the most concerning aspect remains the battery, which, when improperly recycled or not recycled at all, introduces harmful substances into the environment.

“These substances can accumulate in the soil, affecting crops and entering the food chain. The presence of lead in crops can lead to contamination in humans, while contaminated fish can find their way to dinner tables. Pollution can extend to the air we breathe, posing risks to ecosystems, animals, birds, and humans,” he said.

According to a global report 2020 by UNICEF and Pure Earth, around 1 in 3 children – up to 800 million globally – have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the level at which requires action. Nearly half of these children live in South Asia. In Bangladesh, it is estimated that 35.5 million children are affected with blood lead levels above 5 μg/dL, making the country the fourth most-seriously hit in the world in terms of the number of children affected.

Solar e-waste policy is crucial

Dr Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder, founder and chairman of the Center for Atmospheric Pollution Studies (CAPS) at Stamford University of Bangladesh, said the heavy metals in solar panels will contribute to air pollution in Dhaka when the panels are dismantled and mix with other waste, contaminating the entire waste stream.

“This year, the World Bank has provided financial support for an Environment Department project, which includes funding of over Tk25 crore, offering an opportunity to improve the e-waste disposal policy. I think this is an avenue where we can try to accommodate this,” he said.

“Otherwise, the accumulation of 10-20 thousand tons of solar waste in landfills every year would continue to pose risks in Dhaka,” he feared.

Dr Abdullah Al Mamun, deputy director (waste and chemicals management) of the Department of Environment, said although the hazardous waste (e-waste) management rules of 2021 do not specifically mention the disposal method for solar panels, each component of the panel, such as the plastic, glass, wires, and battery, is mentioned separately in the policy.

“Therefore, it is not feasible to dispose of the panel separately. Additionally, recycling and reusing options, such as those available for plastic, are not applicable to solar panels,” he said.

The government official thinks the responsibility lies with the user and the seller to ensure proper disposal after recycling the remaining parts.

“It is their duty to deliver the damaged panel to the seller, who will dispose of it according to their method. Alternatively, there are institutions available for the disposal process, and they can handle it through those channels,” he said.

However, when asked about the feasibility of this approach, he said recycling or disposal is unlikely.

“If solar panels are still found in garbage or landfills, the sellers would be penalized with fines to encourage them to collect the panels from consumers and dispose of them through approved channels. This would mitigate the risk of pollution caused by their improper disposal in the environment,” said the environment department official.

In India, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has issued guidelines for the environmentally safe handling, recycling, and disposal of end-of-life solar panels. aim to ensure proper waste management practices, including the establishment of collection centers and recycling facilities.

China is one of the largest producers and users of solar panels, and the government has recognized the need for proper solar waste management. In 2020, China implemented the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations, which include provisions for the collection, treatment, and recycling of solar panels. The regulations require solar panel manufacturers to be responsible for the management of their products at the end of their life cycles. Additionally, China has encouraged the establishment of solar panel recycling facilities and research into innovative recycling technologies.

Vietnam has also taken steps to address solar waste management. The government has recognized the importance of developing a circular economy for solar panels. Guidelines and regulations are being developed to ensure proper collection, recycling, and disposal of solar panels at the end of their lifespan.

Dr Shahriar Hossain, ecologist, and general secretary, ESDO said, Like India, the Bangladesh government could support research and development initiatives focused on improving the recyclability of solar panels and exploring environmentally friendly materials. This support includes funding for research institutes and industry associations to develop innovative recycling technologies and sustainable manufacturing processes.