Time for the industry to keep its environmental promise

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2013 was a boom year, not for everyone but certainly for the industry’s commitment to sustainable lifecycle management. While the European market for new PV installations declined from 17.6GW in 2012 to approximately 10GW in 2013, the PV waste market flourished.

More than 90% of the European PV market adhered to sustainable waste management; PV CYCLE collected over 3,000 tonnes of damaged or end-of-life PV modules from 18 countries, 50% more countries than the previous year. Membership reached an all-time high with 100% more members than the year before.

Then 2014 came and WEEE kicked in. WEEE is the European Directive for waste from electronic and electrical equipment and the United Kingdom and Bulgaria covered PV modules in their national WEEE legislation in 2014 for the very first time. Other markets, especially those relevant to the industry such as Italy, France and the Netherlands, soon followed and included PV modules in the scope of their WEEE. Until then PV take-back and recycling had been a voluntary commitment initiated by Solar Power Europe (formerly EPIA) and leading PV module manufacturers in 2007. The aim was to set up a collective scheme – PV CYCLE – to allow members to deliver on their commitments to sustainable lifecycle management. Since the start of our operations in June 2010, more than 8,300 tonnes of PV module waste had been collected and recycled by the end of 2013 (approximately 12,000 tonnes including 2014 and 2015) – all free of charge for modules of PV CYCLE members and on a totally voluntary basis.

Today, most countries have included PV modules in their national WEEE legislation, with Germany as the only significant market for PV installations to follow only in autumn 2015. With the shift from a voluntary undertaking to a highly regulated framework, many changes hit the European PV market.

Unlike in the past, these days local manufacturers and importers have to prove that they are part of a functioning take-back and recycling infrastructure. They have to sign up to national registers before selling their modules on the domestic market and declare their sales figures on a periodic basis. While approximately 75% of the French market has sought compliance in less than ten months, it is estimated that only 60% (average, EU) of PV module manufacturers and importers in the rest of Europe comply with their mandatory requirements today. In the UK and the Netherlands the situation is even more dramatic: the public authorities have registered about 50% in the UK and 5% in the Netherlands, most of them companies with a long track record of excellence in environmental and waste matters. More than 1,200MW in the UK and 500MW in the Netherlands are not covered.

Therefore, industry leaders in conjunction with PV CYCLE call for due diligence and a strong commitment to legal compliance and environmental friendliness. Today’s WEEE compliance efforts do not conform to the high commitment to sustainable lifecycle management that motivated the industry to operate its own voluntary take-back and recycling scheme from 2007 to 2012. While WEEE compliance entails administrative as well as financial burdens, it also assures end-users and customers of the quality of their products, so the companies argue. A high non-compliance rate would jeopardise customer trust in the PV industry and would threaten the marketability of those companies seeking to be compliant. Axel Steuer, head of operations at Trina Solar in Europe and president of PV CYCLE Association, confirms that “free-riders are a threat to the PV industry, especially in these difficult times, and a threat to our industry’s promise: an all-green product”.

Measurements from the side of the industry as well as from the authorities are crucial for driving compliance in the PV industry forward and for allowing a level playing field where compliant companies do not have to pay for their free-rider peers.

Free-riders bring a tremendous disadvantage to compliant companies, especially in countries where PV modules are classified as household products, such as France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands or Germany under its imminent new law. “Those who are compliant pay double the bill,” says Jan Clyncke from PV CYCLE. Household – or B2C – products require pre-financing by the local manufacturer or importer but they are also eligible for collection via municipal take-back infrastructures. “Companies pay for their WEEE-compliance and waste operations but they may also end up carrying the burden of poorly pre-financed waste at municipal collection points. If the pre-financing through compliant companies does not match the actual market volumes, non-compliance is a clear game-changer.”

PV CYCLE has always stood for a fair and efficient waste management approach. Working towards consistency and fullness of WEEE compliance, ensuring that PV module waste does not become an issue in the future, and creating a level playing field have therefore become a main focus for the organisation in recent times. PV CYCLE is working with its partners in business and government to inform responsible companies better and to help them with their legal obligations.

For more information on WEEE and compliance, please visit the information hub www.solarwaste.eu

Who is responsible for WEEE compliance?

Any natural or legal person who is established in a Member State and

  • manufactures and sells PV modules under his own name or trademark within the territory of that Member State (MANUFACTURER)
  • resells PV modules produced by other suppliers (except where the brand of the original Producer appears on the product) (DISTRIBUTOR / RESELLER) within the territory of that Member State under his own name or trademark
  • places PV modules from a third country or from another Member State (IMPORTER) on the market of that Member State
  • sells PV modules by means of distance communication directly to private households or to users other than private households in a Member State, and is established in another Member State or in a third country (INTERNET/DISTANCE SALES)

Which obligations do responsible parties carry?

Any person falling under WEEE legislation has the legal obligation to ensure the waste management of his discarded products:

• organise and finance the take-back and treatment of your PV module

• register the company on the National Producer Register to operate legally in your country

• periodically report the quantity of products sold in your country to the National Producer Register

• inform users on correct waste disposal

• mark the products with a crossed-out wheelie bin

• ensure a financial guarantee (country-specific)

• mark the products with the Producer’s identification mark

• inform treatment facilities of product composition and the potential use of hazardous materials

Most obligations are carried out by PV CYCLE on behalf of its members.

Can non-compliance lead to criminal prosecution?

Yes, non-compliance can lead to criminal prosecution, including fines as well as bans on trade. 

New legislation has seen thousands of tonnes of PV material recycled. Source: Copyright of PV Cycle.
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