[Podcast] GigaWhat: Clean waste

  • GigaWhat is a new podcast series discussing India’s transition from fossil fuel to clean energy sources.
  • In the first episode of this podcast by Mongabay-India, we address the management of waste generated in the pursuit of clean energy.
  • India aims to have half its energy requirements met by renewable energy by 2030. But there is no policy yet on disposing or recycling clean energy-related waste.

Where do solar modules go when they are no longer in use? What happens when a wind turbine finishes its lifecycle? Or an electric car battery stops working? 

The first episode of Mongabay-India’s new podcast series, GigaWhat, looks at this emerging waste management problem.

Contributing Editor, Mongabay-India and the podcast host, Mayank Aggarwal, speaks to experts in the industry to understand why this discussion about waste is vital at the start of the clean energy boom. Through conversations with Subrahmanyam Pulipaka of National Solar Energy Federation of India, Akanksha Tyagi of Council on Energy, Environment and Water, Kush Madan of UrSolar and Satish Sinha, of Toxics Link we get an insight into some of the biggest questions, challenges, and opportunities in India’s transition from fossil fuel to clean energy sources.

Listen here:


Full transcript

You are listening to Everything Environment by Mongabay-India.

This is GigaWhat, a special podcast series, where we’ll explore some of the biggest questions, challenges, and opportunities in India’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

The world is looking towards the sun, wind and other alternatives for energy, and so is India, as a way to tackle climate change and other environmental issues. The sight of solar and wind farms, rooftops lined with solar panels, and electricity-powered vehicles might soon be common.

For our first episode, we begin at the end.

Where do solar modules go when they are no longer in use? What happens when a wind turbine finishes its lifecycle? Or an electric car battery stops working?

What happens to the materials that remain after a piece of equipment dies, breaks or malfunctions? In a world already staring at a giant waste management problem, where will all this new kind of waste go?

In this episode we will understand why this discussion about waste is vital at the start of the clean energy boom.

Subrahmanyam Pulipaka (SP): The best time to talk about PV waste was five years back. The second best time is now.

So how is India equipped to handle the remnants of this revolution, and what it needs to truly make this a clean journey?

Akanksha Tyagi (AT): No one in India is talking about it, we don’t have a regulation in place to manage the waste. So India is definitely not prepared at all, to tackle this humongous waste that we are looking at.

Mayank Aggarwal (MA): I’m Mayank Aggarwal, Contributing Editor at Mongabay-India. We are an online publication dedicated to bringing you stories on science and the environment in India. I’ll be your host for GigaWhat, our first podcast series ever. You can visit and explore the Clean Energy series too. You’ll find all links in the show notes.

We begin on the streets of Delhi, right behind the building of the government’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

Subrahmanyam Pulipaka (SP): I was on my phone, like I always am while I’m walking.

MA: That’s Subrahmanyam Pulipaka, CEO of the National Solar Energy Federation of India or NSEFI, an umbrella organisation for solar energy companies in the country.

SP: And suddenly, on the footpath, I could see this solar panel shattered and the glass, laminated glass, broken. And the first reaction that I had was I told you so, because we have been warning everyone in the stakeholder community across the spectrum that this is going to become a reality sooner rather than later. But, even I was surprised that I didn’t expect this, you know, to see it so soon.

MA: For Mr. Pulipaka, this was a symbolic moment. He couldn’t help but think of what lies ahead.

SP: If you look at today India has 100 gigawatt of renewable energy capacity, we are the only fourth country to do so. And we are the world’s fourth largest renewable energy capacity country. And we are also home to the fifth largest fleet of solar panel solar capacity in the world.

MA: More solar or PV modules means chances of more waste at the end. A 2021 study on PV waste management in India by NSEFI, conducted with the support of the European Union and other collaborators, estimated the quantum of PV waste generated in the country.

SP: So according to our report, in the low scenario, we’ll have at least 11,200 metric tons of solar PV waste by the end of this decade.

MA: That’s a quantity of waste that will weigh as much as the Eiffel Tower

SP: In the high scenario, this is as high as 34,600.

MA: That’s almost three and a half Eiffel Towers

SP: That means we’ll be the home to world’s third largest PV waste. Now being home to world’s largest PV waste, and not having a cohesive policy to talk about it is something that will never go hand in hand.

MA: This discussion is not limited to the solar industry; it expands to wind energy and electric vehicles as well.

India dreams of being a global leader in the renewable energy sector, with 50% of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030. But, the country doesn’t have the policy yet to dispose or recycle the waste. There have been deliberations over the topic, but nothing is defined officially so far.

Akanksha Tyagi (AT): So there is a lot of waste generated at the manufacturing stage itself.

MA: Akanksha Tyagi is a Programme Associate at the Council  on Energy, Environment and Water or CEEW. Her focus areas include developing roadmaps to manage minerals in clean energy technologies and assessing the jobs and skilling requirements to support the energy transition.

AT: Then, the manufacturing site and deployment site where you’re going to use these technologies are not, they don’t coincide. So you have to transport them. And in that process, some damages during the transportation, because not all are also domestically produced, so you might have to, you know, import these from other countries. So during transportation, also, we also see a substantial part of these equipment turn into waste, basically. Then during the installation also there are some minor defects, some damage has occurred, some scratches or some, some permanent damage. Then during operations also, not just because of human errors, but could also be due to other natural factors, that during the operational life, also, these equipments reach the premature end of life.

MA: Tyagi believes that as technology evolves and newer/efficient wind turbines and solar panels replace the old, there will be more legacy waste. And as our roads gear up to introduce electric vehicles, massive amounts of batteries could pile up too.

There’s a high chance this waste could end up at the several dumpsites and landfills that stand like mountains, already overflowing with garbage of all kinds.

In the existing mix, there’s electronic waste that comprises computer parts, phones, etc. Not segregated. Not recycled.

India is officially the world’s third-biggest e-waste generator behind the U.S. and China. According to a 2020 report by the Central Pollution Control Board, e-waste in FY 2019-2020 was up by 32% from FY 2018-2019. Of this, only 3.6% was actually collected in 2018 and 10% in 2019 for dismantling and recycling.

But do solar panels and wind turbines fall under e-waste? We will come to that later in the episode. But like e-waste, considering the type of minerals that go into building clean energy equipment, it would make environmental and economic sense to extract and recycle them.

AT: You see, a lot of these technologies use a lot of heavy metals. When I say heavy, it means, you know, we’re talking about metals like cadmium lead, those are, you know, they don’t have a positive impact on the environment, especially when they leach into it. If you leave this waste unattended, what will happen is all these metallic components can leach into the environment, they can contaminate your soil, your water resource if it’s nearby, and eventually, you know, enter into the lifecycle. So, and then the contamination can have different impacts. I mean, some of these are human carcinogens. Some of these are even toxic for animals, and others.

AT: You have lanthanides, you have silicon, aluminium, glass, steel those are some of the components from wind and solar. Batteries have an altogether different chemistry and they have a much diverse set of minerals, you have lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, copper, all of these are, you know, some of the critical components which are present in the lithium ion batteries, which dominate the market right now.

MA: And then there’s a global clean energy race to acquire minerals. A quarter of the world’s known lithium reserves are in Bolivia. 70% of  the world’s cobalt mine production happens in Congo. Both critical minerals in electric vehicle batteries are rare resources.

AT: So these minerals, you know, they have limited reserves, they’re exhaustible. So unless you recover these minerals from the waste, you’re basically depleting your natural resource that you have, and the time will come that, you know, you don’t have enough natural mines to get this from.

MA: Tyagi says that while we somehow manage to extract glass and aluminium, bringing back other minerals is challenging.

AT: The cost of then, you know, purifying this mass further and trying to recover the intrinsic components is higher, and without a demand for these minerals, you know, without the help, without the creation of an alternate market, which will procure these recovered materials, it’s really uneconomical for the recyclers right now to go ahead and scale up the process.

AT: So when it comes to your question, are we prepared? I would say ‘No, we are not’ because of not we are not prepared either in terms of a regulation that would that enforces developers or manufacturers to look at the waste and be responsible towards it nor we have an industrial capability in terms of recycling facility in terms of the equipments that would go into that facility or in terms of the labour or you know the workforce that would be required to operate such equipments or to run that facility.

MA: But where are some of these damaged or discarded pieces of equipment heading now?

I had seen some broken solar panels gathering dust on the side of roads. I asked around but couldn’t find large dumpsites with solar panels and wind turbines. Experts said, it’s not a usual scene yet in India. Our equipment is not all that old yet. But if you do an internet search, you’ll find visuals of huge wind turbines lying in landfills in the U.S. An unsettling sight.

We asked someone who runs a solar panel installation and maintenance company. Kush Madan, founder of UrSolar in Punjab shared his experience from 2021.

Kush Madan (KM): There were 12 panels, which got broken during the transportation and installation time. So we still have six panels with us. Six panels got used in a farm where the customer wanted it. “Okay, I can go ahead with a second grade panel with some shattered glasses.” So that got installed there. But still six pieces is with me.

For now, the only thing that is available to an EPC player is a large-scale wholesaler who collects these broken panels. We have no idea what he does with that.

MA: Satish Sinha, Associate Director at Toxics Link has been working in the waste management sector for decades. The group studies all forms of waste: biomedical, municipal, hazardous, electronic waste and knows exactly what’s happening on the ground. So we asked him…

MA: Where do broken, discarded or end-of-life panels or batteries from EVs end up?

Satish Sinha (SS): Oh, this is an interesting question, Mayank. And we have also been trying to unearth this. Especially for solar panels, you know, when it came in, generally, the life of these panels is about 20-25 years, or maybe around that much. And we were hoping that it will take us some time before this end of life happens. And we will have to figure out as to how it is to be disposed of. But, what we have started to get a feel from the market, that some of it has started to come into the informal sector.

MA: The informal sector Sinha refers to are the several small shops and workshops overflowing with e-waste across India.

SS: We don’t know how to treat this or how it is being treated. What is the hazard component of it? How is this hazard component being dealt with? Who are the people handling this?

SS: There are informal players who go and pick up this waste, they try out everything which is possible under the sun to see what can be recovered from these and then they start trying out their own mechanisms for trying to get certain valuables out of it. So, what we have understood from little survey that we have done or little market research that we have done, that the metals which are available in this is being pulled out from there through, you know, all kinds of means, that they do either you know, you have blowtorch or you have other kinds of things, hammer and tongs and things like that, they use very rudimentary processes, they are trying to pull out the metals then they will melt it, they make this thing out of it and in open air, there are no environmental controls which are happening there.

When you use a rudimentary process, especially with lead, it has got very high capability of being nephrotoxic. It’s known as a nephrotoxic lead. It can affect various systems of your body because when you heat it, it is being leached out into the environment into the air and you’re breathing it.

SP: Installing is one part of the equation. Operating and maintaining is the second part of it. Ultimately, how you handle it after its lifecycle ends, shows how resilient your economy is, how circular your approach is, and how committed you are for the very own environment for which we are installing this to protect and, you know, pass the planet to our future generation.

MA: India’s laws to manage e-waste have evolved over the years. In fact, India is the only country in South Asia with e-waste legislation since 2011 – the E-Waste (Management) Rules.

The backbone of this rule now lies in something called Extended Producer Responsibility.

SS: So this rule stipulates that, broadly stipulates that, there needs to be a protocol and system for taking these equipments back at the end of its life, and to be setting it in a proper waste flow channel so that it reaches the right hands so that they can be disposed of in a manner which has least environmental impacts. This is the crux of the whole regulation that came in.

Now, it assigns various kinds of responsibilities to different people. One is the generator of the waste. I think it’s important to understand that this was the first rule where we all were assigned a certain amount of responsibility when we use this kind of equipments with us, in our offices in our homes or anywhere else, we need to ensure that at the end of useful life of these products, we give it to the people who have the right kind of capacity, who have that knowledge on subject to take this path and to ensure that it is put in the right channels and it’s recycled properly. So that one responsibility is with the users.

The brands who sell these products into the market or import them and send them into the market, they have an extended responsibility for this product. That means, even after they’ve sold this product, they become responsible for ensuring that these products are handled safely at the end of their lives.

MA: That means your laptop, mobile, refrigerator manufacturers have an implicit responsibility to pick up your products, if they are called, and ensure that it is being disposed of in the way prescribed by the rulebook.

Now, where exactly does cleantech waste fall in India?

SS: It’s a good question to ask actually that where does it fall? Does it fall outside the ambit of electronic waste? Or does it become something else? Now, for long we have been debating this and we have been saying that this is a waste which is likely to happen today, day after or the day day after. It’s important for us to start preparing for it and start clubbing it with certain kinds of waste. And if you look at the hazard content and if you look at the kind of waste we generate, you know on the first go, we all feel that it should be part of the electronic wastebasket and it should be willy nilly fall into this.

Also, the second reason why it becomes important to deal with this in under the electronic waste rules is that many of the infrastructure recycling infrastructure that we have established so far in this country at multiple locations, it might be easier to, you know, customize many of these equipments and use it for treating end of life waste from the renewable energy sector. It might be much more efficient, much more effective to deal with this waste under the electronic waste paradigm.

Why was it not done earlier, many of these electronic waste components have still not been included in it, because we didn’t have the experience as a country to do treat this kind of waste.

MA: Cleantech waste is a global problem. The European Union’s e-waste directives were modified in 2012 to include PV as one of the electronic waste commodities.

India took steps to prevent the harmful antimony from glass in PV modules from leaching into the environment.

The renewable energy ministry has drafted a proposal for the safe handling and disposal of module glass. The draft proposes handling it under the provisions of the 2016 Hazardous and Other Wastes Management Rules with authorisation from the concerned State Pollution Control Boards.

So, what will we need to prepare ourselves to handle this issue, make it economically viable to recycle waste and ensure that this fight against climate change does not end up causing other environmental problems?

SP: The best time to talk about PV waste was five years back. The second best time is now.

We should not repeat the same mistake we did for other wastes including e-waste, and the need of the hour is to have a very very comprehensive, cohesive and clear and clear being the operative word for PV waste in the country, because this is the same thing we did for e-waste. Today we are reaping the benefits.

AT: So I think what we can start with is by first introducing the ban on landfilling of these waste components. Then second, we can try to modify our existing electronic waste management regulations.

MA: Tyagi, Pulipaka and Sinha all emphasise the need for investment in recycling technology within the country and international collaborations with other nations that use such technology.

Tyagi suggests the need to improve the design of cleantech with a design-to-disassemble principle making the extraction and recycling phase efficient. Since solar-based tech will be all-over in urban and rural areas in the form of rooftop solar, solar-powered chargers, solar irrigation pumps and so on, she notes that sensitising the public about disposal has to begin from now.

SS: Informal sector in India plays a very important role. Waste flow in the informal sector, they are synonyms. I think the access to waste by the informal sector is phenomenal. It is unique for a developing country like India or many other developing countries that you have in informal sector and their livelihood depends on waste. And that’s why perhaps you will find them in every city and they are good collectors of waste. They are very good aggregators of waste and they are very good recyclers also in many ways, and in some ways not so good also. Second thing, the kind of overheads for the informal sector is very low.

They work on very small overheads. And they also work on very small margins of profit. All most all of them are unwritten transactions that are happening across in informal sector, but they work on trust, but they’re very well networked.

However, they have not been acknowledged, or they’re not being recognised in the law. And that brings in a huge amount of problems. Even in the electronic waste law or any other law, their role is not defined, and that is why they become illegal. And all the operations that happen with the informal sector makes it very hard for anyone to control or to, you know, put in controls to ensure that environmental damages do not happen.

And that is why I feel that even in the case of waste from the renewable energy sector, we should be willing to recognise the role of the informal sector. So that they don’t pose, they don’t act in competition or in conflict with the formal sector.

If you just recognise the informal sector, they might become quasi-formal or semi formal, or you know, with some amount of controls over them, but they will be part of the value chain, and you will have a lot more waste flow in a synchronised manner to a formal sector, where the recycling happens without any adverse major adverse impacts on the environment.

MA: If you stayed this long, thank you for listening. Please share this episode with your friends and family or on social media.

This show was produced and scripted by my colleague at Mongabay-India, Kartik Chandramouli. Edited and mixed by Tejas Dayananda Sagar. Copy edits, Aditi Tandon. Podcast production assistant, Ayushi Kothari. GigaWhat artwork, Pooja Gupta.

We’ll be out with another episode of GigaWhat soon. Take care.

Read more: India’s growing solar power programme could leave behind a trail of waste

Banner image: A broken solar panel near the Ministry of Renewable Energy building in Delhi. Photo by Subrahmanyam Pulipaka.

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