Could solar industry be storing up a toxic nightmare?

Decades after the fledgling semiconductor manufacturing industry caused contamination, deaths and established a still ongoing legacy of millions of tons of e-waste, experts are warning that the booming solar energy sector could be on track to repeat history.

According to new white paper to be released later today by watchdog group the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), there is a significant environmental impact to today's manufacture of solar panels that is being widely ignored.

The SVTC - which is starting a new Clean and Just Solar Industry campaign to try and force the emerging industry to clean up its act - argues that the most widely used solar panels are built with materials and processes from the microelectronics industry and therefore can expose workers to a pot pourri of hazardess materials, such as cadmium, lead, mercury, brominated flame retardants and chromium.

The report warns that the solar industry should avoid the mistakes made by the electronics industry, where a lack of environmental planning and oversight resulted in widespread toxic chemical pollution that caused death and injury to workers and people living in nearby communities.

Its legacy includes a growing global tide of toxic electronic waste and now solar panels have the potential to create a huge new wave of e-waste at the end of their useful lives in around 20 to 25 years, the report said.

Consequently, the SVTC is calling for manufacturers to initiate a producer take back scheme, which requires companies to take back their products when users are done with them and ensure that they are recycled safely and responsibly.

It is also advising that manufacturers act early to try and clean up the industry by seeking viable alternatives to known hazardous materials and other substances, such as nanomaterials, which may cause as-yet unknown health and environmental risks.

The watchdog says that while the solar sector is still emerging, there is a limited window of opportunity to ensure that industry is truly clean and green, from its supply chains through product manufacturing, use and end-of-life disposal.

One of the first moves all companies should make, according to SVTC executive director Sheila Davis, is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of workers, which for cost reasons are mainly in China. As consumer product companies have done, she called for solar firms to regularly inspect manufacturing facilities in Asia to ensure conditions are safe.

Solar has tremendous potential to solve energy crises and climate change, she said, but added that the industry's green credentials would take a blow if it did not act early to address the threats posed by hazardous substances.

"We have a tremendous opportunity right now to make sure it is truly sustainable and doesn't create any additional crises in terms of its toxicity and its end-of-life-cycle impacts," she argued.

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