Solar E-Waste Reduction in Displacement Settings
Improving access to energy and increasing the use of renewable energy systems1 for electricity in displacement settings will lead to an increase in electronic waste (E-waste) in those surroundings where the disposal of growing waste volumes is already an issue. Hence, it is pivotal for energy projects to consider these consequences and deliver potential solutions. In order to include the aspect of E-waste from the outset of project activities, SUN-ESDS calls for a holistic approach considering operation and maintenance (O&M), repair and E-waste collection in displacement settings. There are many more aspects of a product’s life-cycle that need to be considered, including how it may be extended through the resourcefulness of the people using them.
A humanitarian intervention’s funding cycle is usually shorter than the life-cycle of a solar product. Once devices such as solar lanterns have been distributed, they are often left to the end-user to repair, repurpose, and finally dispose of. Many products are not designed to be manually dismantled and repaired, which in turn may result in safety issues (leaking batteries, hazardous material thrown in pits, etc.). Even with proper use and care of a product, the end of its life-cycle is inevitable, turning a product – or parts of it – into E-waste.
E-Waste from solar photovoltaic (PV) systems consists of various plastic types, numerous metals and glass, yet the most critical part is the battery because it is typically the weakest point in a solar PV system – it is not repairable and tends to be the first to reach end-of-life. There are different types of batteries: Lead-acid batteries (LABs) are used for mini-grids and larger PV systems/ self-made systems, whereas Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries are found in smaller plug-and-play systems (solar home systems, solar lanterns, etc.).
Recycling LABs is relatively common, but the disposal and recycling methods need to be improved in terms of safety. Li-battery recycling is rather a high-tech and high cost process, which is thus far only found in industrialized countries. LMO (lithium-manganese-oxide) and LFP (lithium-iron-phosphate) are currently the most relevant Li-batteries for off-grid solar power projects. Projects using LABs should focus on improving existing recycling infrastructure and processes, through policy and possibly also in combination with own attempts to identify suitable recycling partners.
Projects, such as SUN-ESDS, that promote systems with Li-batteries should focus on collection and recycling solutions, while identifying responsibilities to cover the extra costs and how the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) can be enforced.
Important considerations for SUN-ESDS project implementation:
- Regarding collection, synergies with distribution and maintenance networks can help to reduce efforts and costs
- Collection schemes should work with volume-based targets
- In any case, projects should be aware that collection and sound recycling of Li-ion (LMO and LFP types) is associated with net costs
- In developing countries, the informal sector collects, sorts, dismantles or recycles, maybe also refurbishes electronic appliances, which competes with formal sector
- OECD defines the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as “an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life-cycle”.
There are two related features of the EPR policy:
- the shifting of responsibility (physically and/or economically; fully or partially) upstream toward the producer and away from municipalities,
- to provide incentives to producers to incorporate environmental considerations in the design of their products
With the help of a quick survey, SUN-ESDS could get an initial overview on the E-waste situation in UNHCR camps/settlements of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda - here are three main insights:
- General solid waste management needs to be improved, so that E-waste can be tackled
- E-waste volumes are insignificant at camp/settlement level, seems higher in UNHCR facilities and the host community
- Energy actors and WASH actors should work together
In order to keep track of E-waste during project implementation and to ensure that a functioning structure will persist beyond that, SUN-ESDS is launching a cross-organisational technical working group: Solar E-waste Reduction in Displacement Settings. The objective is to join forces to minimise the consequential waste of increased energy access by creating synergies and enabling the exchange of technical information and data (knowledge sharing). This is a platform for various actors to combine efforts in accounting for consequences of the increase in access to off-grid energy solutions.
For more information about the work ESDS does on this topic, please contact *****.
- Energy and Displacement in Eight Objects: Insights from Sub-Saharan Africa 2019: https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/energy-and-displacement-eight-objects-insights-sub-saharan-africa
- End-of-Life Management of Batteries in the Off-Grid Solar Sector 2018:https://energypedia.info/wiki/End-of-Life_Management_of_Batteries_in_the_Off-Grid_Solar_Sector
- OECD: Extended Producer Responsibility: https://www.oecd.org/env/tools-evaluation/extendedproducerresponsibility.htm
 such as solar lanterns, solar homes systems, and rechargeable batteries