Looking back, 2023 will undoubtedly go down in history as the year that South Africa’s corporate and civil society “went solar” in a way never seen before. In an effort to avoid the crippling effect of loadshedding, hundreds of thousands of individuals and companies recently opted to invest in solar panels. According to a recent BusinessTech report, South Africa’s imports of solar panels increased thrice from the previous quarter to an all-time high of R3.6 billion in the first quarter of 2023.
“Whilst this is good news for renewable energy, we also need to think about the long-term implications that even this ‘green energy’ will have on the environment,” cautions Dr Mark Williams-Wynn, KZN Branch Committee Member of the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA). “In the coming years, we will have to deal with the recycling of millions of solar panels and batteries that are currently being imported into South Africa.”
The Challenge: Millions of discarded panels and batteries in a decade
Williams-Wynn says there’s now an estimate of between 20 million and 25 million solar panels in the country after the recent influx. Most have an expected lifespan of about 20 years and according to Williams-Wynn, South Africa should be ready for mass recycling in about a 10 to 15 years’ time. “That is when we will see thousands of panels having to be replaced with new ones, and when recycling the old products correctly will become critically important.”
He explains that one of the challenges with solar panel waste is that they are banned from landfills, as they are potentially hazardous to both human and environmental health.
“We need to adopt alternative waste management solutions, such as recycling, refurbishing and repairing, or reusing them in lower-demand applications,” he continues, adding that emphasis needs to be placed on the waste management of the batteries used in solar systems as well.
“I believe this to be the bigger challenge,” Williams-Wynn warns. “The batteries in household solar panels are lithium iron phosphate batteries, also known as LFP (lithium ferrophosphate) batteries. The only material in this battery that has some value when recovered is lithium. The iron and phosphate of such low value that it’s not really economically viable to try and recover them.”
Furthermore, the product is highly flammable. “And once that fire starts, it is self-sustaining,” he warns. “They don’t need oxygen to burn, and even when smothering burning batteries with foam they can continue to burn.”
The Solution: Adherence and Power of the Customer’s Voice
The success or failure of South Africa’s solar waste story will depend on how responsibly we operate in the here and now, Williams-Wynn notes.
“The methods for properly disposing of and recycling panels and batteries are constantly developing and improving – but if we do nothing now, we could face a catastrophe later.
There is simply not enough adherence to the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations which took effect in 2021 and hold producers (which includes manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers) accountable for the end-of-life management of their products,” he says. “There are many reasons for this, including expenses, control and enforcement, but in the end, the environment suffers – and it will be everyone’s problem in future.”
According to Williams-Wynn, both the general public and solar installers have the ability to change things.
“Customers often don’t realise the collective power that they have. To ensure that our solar and battery producers are complying with the EPR regulations, we must all exert pressure on them. If that happens, South Africa will be equipped and ready when the solar waste wave strikes in a few years.”
Image attribution: Freepik