Written by: Virginia McCormick, NES, Inc.
California’s Universal Waste Program will now include waste solar panels, which were previously classified as hazardous waste.
Solar Panels to be Reclassified as Universal Waste Following California DTSC Final Rule
Effective January 1, 2021, photovoltaic modules, commonly known as solar panels, will be included in California’s Universal Waste Program. The reclassification comes as a result of a late-October 2020 final rule by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). California is the first state to implement this change, which the DTSC calls a, “model for the rest of the nation to follow.”
Photovoltaic solar panels have an average lifespan of about 30 years. And with solar panel use in the United States growing an average of 65% each year for the last decade, it is understandable that a rapid increase in solar panel waste generation is on the horizon for the country. This is especially true for California, which has set a goal of drawing 100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, by 2045.
Under this legislation, waste solar panels will be managed under an alternative set of management standards, in lieu of hazardous waste regulations. The move to reclassify solar panels as universal waste is intended to promote recycling and reuse of the technology. By streamlining this process, DTSC aims to keep the panels from collecting in the State’s landfills, where potentially hazardous chemicals may leach into the surrounding areas.
By reclassifying photovoltaic solar panel waste as universal waste, the hope is that there will be fewer panels filling landfills in the coming decades.
However, solar panels or parts that are not recycled and are slated for disposal may still be considered hazardous waste and are subject to hazardous waste standards. Additionally, the new universal waste designation only applies to solar panel waste handled in California. Once the waste is transported outside of California, it must be managed in a manner compliant with local hazardous waste regulations.
Solar Panels & The California Universal Waste Program
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) gives the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to control hazardous waste from cradle to grave. The federal universal waste regulations, found in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in Part 273, cover hazardous wastes that are commonly generated by a wide variety of businesses, establishments, and even households. Like many federal environmental regulations, EPA authorizes states to develop their own programs as an alternative to the agency’s direct involvement.
Through State Authorization, EPA shifts the primary responsibility for implementing the RCRA hazardous waste program to individual states, provided that a state’s hazardous waste program is at least as stringent as the federal RCRA hazardous waste program. The California Universal Waste Program supersedes the EPA’s program through this State Authorization.
Universal wastes, such as electronics, batteries, and lamps, should never be disposed of in landfills, nor discarded in household trash.
The universal waste category includes many items, such as batteries, fluorescent lamps, cathode-ray tubes, plasma monitors, and non-empty aerosol cans. These are hazardous wastes but are known to contain very common materials. And while universal waste is hazardous, the management standards are not the same as those that apply to hazardous waste.
California’s initial universal waste rule was first established in 2002 but has seen many updates since the first iteration. The decision to add photovoltaic solar panel waste to the State’s program is only the most recent update. The regulation text is found under California Code of Regulations, Title 22, Division 4.5, Chapter 11, Section 66261.9. The regulation text has separate requirements for each of the three types of regulated entities:
- Universal waste handlers (a generator of universal waste)
- Universal waste transporters (a person engaged in the transportation of universal waste)
- Destination facilities (regulated hazardous waste facilities that treat, dispose of, or recycle universal waste)
Universal waste handlers must relinquish their universal waste to either another handler, a universal waste transporter, or a universal waste destination facility. DTSC lists several search engines to use to find locations that accept universal waste, including E-Recycle.org, Earth911.org, and the CalRecycle database.
A Solar Power Boom Begets a Surge of Solar Power Waste
According to the Department of Energy, solar power is, “more affordable, accessible, and prevalent in the United States than ever before.” California has dominated the U.S. solar market, with an energy capacity of nearly 30,000 megawatts.
Many recent California laws, initiatives, and environmental programs have resulted in an increase in demand for solar energy by various public and private sectors, which has resulted in a surge in the installation and operation of solar panels.
The State’s solar power implementation is unlikely to slow down. With solar panel use only growing, a flood of solar panel-related waste is inevitable. It is estimated that nearly ten metric tons of photovoltaic waste is expected to be generated between 2030 and 2060.
In the Initial Statement of Reasons for recategorizing solar panels as universal waste, DTSC noted that, “as PV modules reach the end of their useful life and are taken out of service, consideration must be taken as to how to manage these wastes.” The document reasoned that amending the regulations will reduce the number of solar panels being illegally disposed of and will promote more solar panel use in the State.
Photovoltaic solar panels contain potentially hazardous chemicals, such as lead and cadmium, which could leach into landfill soil if not processed correctly.
DTSC has estimated that updating the regulations for collecting, recycling, and treating solar panels as universal waste would result in annual cost savings of nearly $18 million. DTSC also estimated the total statewide benefits from this regulation at more than $91 million.
NES & Environmental Health
NES has been providing EH&S training and consulting services on behalf of a wide array of public and private businesses and government agencies for over 30 years. We provide hazardous waste management and universal waste management training in open enrollment format, via webinar, and on-site at clients’ facilities throughout California and beyond. We also provide these and other environmental training programs on behalf of select California CUPAs. To learn more about NES’ EH&S training and consulting services, please contact NES at 916-353-2360 / 1-800-NES-ADVISE (1-800-637-2384) or email@example.com.