Hey Mr. Green,
Are solar panels worthwhile as an environmental investment, or are they the next e-waste? –-Anna L, in Pasadena, California
Given the staggering amount of e-waste we already generate, your concern is legitimate. We dump more than 1.8 million tons of electronic stuff every year, according to the EPA. That’s a toxic heap of 14 million TVs; 109 million computers and their peripherals, and 112 million cell phones. (To find responsible electronics recyclers, see the Electronics TakeBack Coalition’s listings at www.electronicstakeback.com/how-to-recycle-electronics/)
Defunct solar panels are not likely to grow into similar mountains--and that’s quite a claim from techno-skeptic like Mr. Green, who has been called a hopeless Luddite. Solar panels will last 25 years, unlike so much electronic gear that gets tossed because it’s obsolete, dysfunctional, or simply uncool within a few months or years of its gestation This life span should give the solar industry and government regulators ample time to set up safe recycling operations. Already, one major producer of solar panels, First Solar, has recycling facilities at its plants that operate by OSHA and other safety standards and recover 95 percent of panel material and 90 percent of the glass used. Because the bulk of the recycling will take place far in the future, this company has set up a separate trust to fund recycling operations. The largest U.S. solar panel company, Solar World, has a certified recycling facility in Germany where it can send old panels, while in Europe, 85 percent of the solar manufacturers are already committed to safety-certified recycling programs.
The Solar Energy Industry Association, a major solar trade group, even includes recycling in its “Solar Bill of Rights,” declaring, “Consumers should expect the solar industry to minimize its environmental impact through panel recycling and other programs, and communicate information about available incentives in a clear, accurate and accessible manner..”
The reason for this approach are obvious: At the very heart of the solar industry is its claim to green energy, so it becomes highly vulnerable to attack if green energy comes at the cost of a dirty environment cluttered with dirty waste. By contrast, other electronics industries never made environmental values their main reason for existence and the basis of their marketing. They had little reason to worry about chucking millions of tons of their products. This radical difference explains why solar-industry folks I’ve consulted view environmental regulation and recycling with a positive attitude one rarely finds in most other industries.
But not all solar manufacturers are safe or environmentally responsible, so if you are considering the purchase or rental of solar panels, you should be prepared to ask tough questions about any solar manufacturer’s processes and recycling policies.
P.S. I was going to append a fine poem, “Throw Your Cell Phone in the Ocean,” but was worried that some people might take literally what is a metaphor for unplugging the wretched excess of electronic gadgetry and tuning in to the actual world around us. If you'd like a copy, request it at submit your question above.