Off-grid solar devices such as solar lanterns and small solar home systems are transforming communities around the world that lack access to an electrical grid. Unfortunately, these products typically have short life spans—just three to five years—and are already creating a serious hazardous waste problem.
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) is drawing on our extensive experience in electronics and solar sustainability to address this critical issue. The Sustainable Off-Grid Solar Recycling Incubator (or Incubator) will promote the market expansion of off-grid solar products, while at the same time developing realistic solutions to the recycling and reuse of these devices. The not-for-profit Incubator will partner with African communities, university researchers and students, and off-grid solar lighting companies to promote product innovation and sustainability. This pilot project will also develop innovative waste management systems that circumvent the need to build expensive conventional waste collection infrastructure and can be replicated in communities around the world.
SVTC’s Incubator project will include the following:
•Solar Product Distribution and Testing—Malawi: The Incubator will be piloted in Central Malawi, a remote region of Africa where solar sales have not yet penetrated. In partnership with two villages in the Kasungu District, the Incubator will distribute selected solar products using microloans. We will work with users to gather data on product use, durability, and reliability as well as the potential for product reuse, repair, and recyclability at end-of-life.
•University Research and Development: Researchers and students in the US and Malawi will assess the most widely used off-grid solar devices for durability, functionality, recyclability, and toxicity. This research and results from the Malawi field tests will be used to develop 1) Design for Environment (DfE) criteria for off-grid solar products; 2) safe and sustainable end-of-life disposal models that provide economic opportunities for reuse and recycling; and 3) a nonproprietary database for use by product designers, manufacturers, recyclers, and other stakeholders.
Nearly 1.3 billion people worldwide lack access to electricity, relying instead on expensive and polluting fuels such as kerosene, wood, and coal. Off-grid solar devices offer a more sustainable solution, but because off-grid areas typically lack solid waste disposal infrastructures, devices that no longer function are typically burned or discarded into the environment. There is no political will or economic capacity to build conventional solid waste infrastructures in most of these regions, so it is therefore essential that this problem be addressed both at the “front end” (through safer, more sustainable, and more recyclable designs and materials) and also by developing alternative waste management strategies.