Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition Solar Recycling Incubator

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.

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.

BUILDING DISTRIBUTION AND RECYCLING CAPACITY IN REMOTE REGIONS

The Revolving Loan Fund—A Model for Expanding Solar Distribution and Recycling

To be successful, off-grid solar recycling systems must be integrated into product sales and distribution channels. However, the distribution of solar products in remote communities presents major challenges. Solar company sales agents must travel many miles on dirt roads, typically by motorcycle or bicycle, to reach rural farming villages. In addition, Malawi’s challenging economic infrastructure makes it difficult for agents to build product inventories.

The Incubator’s Revolving Loan Fund will support solar distribution through short-term loans (30–90 days) made to solar sales agents who serve rural, hard-to-access areas in Malawi. In collaboration with SolarAid (one of the largest not-for-profit solar distributors in Africa), the Revolving Loan Fund will help agents to build inventory and to develop relationships with rural villages by offering quality products and customer care. These distribution channels will also lay the foundation for reverse-distribution and recycling services. Find out more about the Revolving Loan program.

PRODUCT DESIGN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT (DfE)

Design for Environment (DfE) Criteria for Off-Grid Solar Products
To ensure safe and profitable recycling of solar products, manufacturers must optimize product reusability and recyclability. This includes designing the product so that it can be easily repaired and disassembled for recycling, and so that materials recovered have recycling value. The Incubator is partnering with researchers (at the University of Edinburgh and UC Santa Cruz), recyclers, solar companies, and Malawi solar customers to evaluate the potential of current off-grid solar products for reuse and recyclability. These evaluations will be used to develop DfE criteria for off-grid devices that can be used industrywide by solar manufacturers. Find the Incubator DfE principles here.

Online Solar Repair
The repair industry is alive and well throughout most urban areas and small townships in Africa. SVTC is collaborating with ifixit (www.ifixit.com) to develop online repair manuals for off-grid solar products. The online manuals will be used by repair shop technicians as well as by technical training and repair programs being developed by NGOs in Kenya and Ghana. Find more information about ifixit online repair manuals.

Recycling Database
The Recycling Database will house information about materials and component parts used in the solar industry. This information will enable manufacturers to make decisions that reduce hazardous materials and improve product durability, functionality, and recyclability. Find out more about the Recycling Database.

 INTEGRATING SOLAR INTO AGRICULTURAL SYSTEMS

Umodzi Farm Demonstration Project
Ninety percent of Malawians are engaged in agriculture, yet the country is unable to achieve food security due to unsustainable farming practices. The Umodzi (oneness is strength) Farm Demonstration Project, located in the Kasungu District of Malawi, will explore methods of combining the use of solar energy with sustainable farming practices. The project will transform 10-acres of degraded agricultural land into a model sustainable farm. Find out more about the Umodzi Farm Demonstration project.


How you can help

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.

Fortunately, we have the technology and tools to address these challenges before discarded solar waste becomes an international health and environmental crisis. With partners in Malawi and Kenya and with university researchers, SVTC will develop systems that leapfrog the need to build outdated and expensive conventional solid waste management systems.

Through SVTC’s more than 30 years of environmental health leadership in the high-tech industry, we’ve learned the importance of taking action early. Help us to encourage innovative and sustainable practices as new tech sectors grow and as manufacturing, design, and end-of-life infrastructures are scaled up.

Donate to SVTC

Your donation will help women in Malawi finance solar business, and enable SVTC and our collaborative partners to research and test recycling systems.