California Classifies Solar Panels as Universal Waste

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The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) recently finalized long-awaited revisions to its hazardous waste regulations that will allow PV solar panels to be managed as “universal waste” beginning on January 1, 2021. This reclassification will have significant implications on how spent PV solar panels are managed in the state.

Prior to this change, PV solar panels have been subject to the full requirements of California’s hazardous waste regulations. DTSC has recognized that these stringent requirements have led to challenges related to the disposal of PV solar panels. In its Initial Statement of Reasons for classifying PV solar panels as universal waste, DTSC noted that the growing demand for the generation of alternative energy in California has resulted in an increase in the number of solar panels that reach the end of their useful life and must ultimately be disposed. Because discarded solar panels may potentially exhibit hazardous waste characteristics, current regulations require generators to determine whether toxic substances are present and in what quantities. These requirements lead to more stringent management obligations for solar facilities and increase associated management costs.

By being classified as universal waste, PV solar panels will now be subject to a streamlined set of standards that are intended to ease regulatory burden and promote recycling. For example, under the universal waste requirements, handlers may accumulate PV solar panels for up to one year, while the general hazardous waste requirements only allow accumulation for 90 days (for large quantity generators). This longer accumulation period will allow handlers to transport the solar panels to destination facilities in bulk rather than on a more frequent basis. In addition, the universal waste requirements include fewer labeling and recordkeeping requirements and also allow waste to be transported without a hazardous waste manifest. Facilities will also be able to exclude the weight of solar panels from their generation quantities, likely leading to the ability to qualify for small quantity generator status.

DTSC projects that classifying PV solar panels as universal waste will have significant economic benefits. DTSC estimated that streamlining the regulations for collecting, recycling, and treating solar panels would result in a total annual cost savings of nearly $18 million. In addition, DTSC estimated the total statewide benefits from this regulation at more than $91 million. This estimate is partially based on e-recyclers expressing interest in expanding their businesses in light of PV solar panels being regulated as universal waste.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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