Solar panels can be recycled, but the costs and the possible environmental impacts have stood to bar efficient and widespread recycling. As of Jan. 1, a new California law became effective allowing for the management of decommissioned solar panels through recycling which will make recycling far more economical than before. This first-in-the-nation law will allow solar panels to be handled as “universal waste” as opposed to “hazardous waste” if the panels are solely being disposed of for recycling. Until now, the recycling of solar panels has been a marginally profitable activity, with transportation and handling costs being a substantial factor in the lack of profitability. Shifting the transportation and handling from hazardous waste to universal waste significantly reduces those costs, thus boosting the profitability of recycling and encouraging more recyclers to become involved in this effort.
A material that is deemed hazardous waste must be handled following a series of strict rules. What is and what is not hazardous is outlined in various rules and regulations promulgated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under RCRA, waste can be deemed hazardous if it is listed as a waste under the Act or meets the four characteristics of hazardous waste: ignitability, reactivity, corrosivity, and toxicity. The Act gives the EPA authority to make determinations and set rules regarding the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. To achieve this, the EPA has provided and continues to provide further regulations, guidance, and policies that ensure the safe management and cleanup of hazardous waste, and programs that encourage source reduction and beneficial reuse. For example, the EPA has set up standards applicable to generators of hazardous waste, for those to transport hazardous waste, for those who store or dispose of hazardous waste, and others. But, when RCRA was written, it was Congress’ intent for the states to assume primary responsibility for implementing the hazardous waste regulations, with oversight from the federal government. Congress felt the states’ familiarity with the regulated community, and state and local needs would allow them to administer the hazardous waste program in the most effective manner. For a state to assume the regulatory lead as the implementing agency, it must be authorized by EPA to do so.
The standards applicable to a generator of hazardous waste include various classifications, each with different sets of criteria for compliance. However, whether considered small or large, each generator must comply with the program of waste manifesting which, in essence, shows what the substance was, how much of it existed, who generated it, who is transporting it to a specific facility approved for handling such material, etc. There are also various requirements for storage, packaging, and record keeping. This makes the cost of handling hazardous substances expensive and sometimes very cumbersome.