It’s easy to think that solar panels can do no wrong— after all, they will help lead us out of our energy crisis, right? Unfortunately, these shining beacons of hope produce toxic e-waste just like cell phones, TVs, and computers. A report released today by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition admonishes the solar industry to face its e-waste problem head on or risk “repeating the mistakes made by the microelectronics industry.”
The SVTC warns that solar panel production creates many of the same toxic byproducts as those found in semiconductor production, including silicon tetrachloride, dusts, and greenhouse gases like sulfur hexafluoride. These byproducts aren’t anything to scoff at— silicon tetrachloride, for example, makes land unsuitable for growing crops. And for each ton of polysilicon produced, four tons of silicon tetrachloride are generated.
There are steps that the solar industry can take to minimize toxic risks, however. The SVTC recommends that manufacturers test materials for toxicity before using them. Additionally, the group asks manufacturers to ramp up takeback programs.
But getting solar panel manufacturers to take back their products after 25 years (the average lifespan of silicon-based panels) could prove difficult, especially since other electronics manufacturers that make products with much shorter lifespans can’t get their takeback programs off the ground.
The only way manufacturers will aggressively pursue recycling and anti-toxicity campaigns is if we stop giving the solar industry a free pass and start demanding accountability.
Photo Credit: CC-licensed by flickr user David Boyle
Ariel Schwartz was formerly the editor of CleanTechnica and is a contributor at Fast Company, Inhabitat, Triple Pundit, SF Weekly, and NBC Bay Area Online. A graduate of Vassar College, she has previously worked in publishing, organic farming, documentary film, and newspaper journalism. Her interests include permaculture, hiking, skiing, music, relocalization, and cob (the building material). She currently resides in San Francisco, CA.