Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

California Proposes Universal Wastes Rules For Photovoltaics

Posted by Jon Elliott on Tue, Jun 11, 2019

Solar panelsThe Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) assigns the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state hazardous waste agencies regulate “hazardous wastes,” including categories defined as “universal wastes” that are subject to reduced management requirements. EPA defines five categories, but also allows states to define additional categories (I wrote about this here). California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has just proposed to add a new category of state-regulated universal waste covering “photovoltaic [PV] modules” to its regulations under the state’s Hazardous Waste Control Law (HWCL). The remainder of today’s blog summarizes these proposed universal waste PV requirements.

Which PV Wastes Are Covered?

DTSC’s general justification for regulating waste PV modules is the likelihood that the wastes will exhibit the toxicity characteristic, because of heavy metals such as cadmium, copper, lead, or selenium.  DTSC is proposing to add the following definitions covering photovoltaic equipment including actual PV cells and peripherals:

“’Photovoltaic cell’ means a specialized semiconductor diode designed to convert solar radiation into electrical energy. Photovoltaic cells are an integral part of photovoltaic modules. Photovoltaic cell is also commonly referred to as solar cell.

‘Photovoltaic module ‘means a device consisting of one or more electrically connected photovoltaic cells that are protected, such as in glass, and designed to convert solar radiation into electrical energy. Photovoltaic module includes any ancillary components such as metal frames used to support the module, junction boxes, batteries, inverters, wires, and cables that are connected to and are part of the photovoltaic module. Types of photovoltaic modules include, but are not limited to, monocrystalline silicon photovoltaic modules, polycrystalline silicon photovoltaic modules, amorphous silicon photovoltaic modules, cadmium telluride photovoltaic modules, copper indium gallium selenide photovoltaic modules, and gallium indium phosphide/gallium arsenide/gallium photovoltaic modules. Photovoltaic modules are also commonly referred to as photovoltaic panels or solar panels.

‘Photovoltaic panel see ‘photovoltaic module.’”

However, DTSC proposes to exclude PV modules in the following circumstances:

  • Not yet “wastes” as defined under HWC.

  • Do not exhibit a characteristic of a hazardous waste (i.e., corrosivity, ignitability, reactivity, or toxicity).

  • Exhibit any characteristic of a hazardous waste other than toxicity (which must be managed as hazardous wastes, not universal wastes).

  • Destined for recycling (or are recycled) by being “used in a manner constituting disposal” (which must be managed as hazardous wastes).

  • Destined for disposal at a permitted hazardous waste disposal facility (which must be managed as hazardous wastes, not universal wastes).

  • Managed as hazardous wastes.

  • Were previously identified as waste, but are no longer identified as a waste (e.g., discarded PV modules that are refurbished and are returned to service).

  • Are integrated into the structure of electronic devices (e.g., calculators).

What Requirements are California Proposing?

Universal waste management requirements begin with “handlers” – analogous to hazardous waste “generators.” Related requirements also apply to universal waste transporters, and to destination facilities where wastes are managed offsite. California’s proposal would interpolate requirements for PV cells and modules into the state’s existing universal waste regulations (which are consistent with the national requirements I summarized in my prior blog).

  • What onsite management standards will apply?

Universal waste handlers are subject to onsite management requirements, applicable after generation but before the wastes are shipped offsite. Requirements include:

  • Do not accumulate universal waste onsite for longer than 1 year, unless necessary to facilitate proper recovery, treatment or disposal.

  • Label universal waste or its container to identify the type of waste.

  • Demonstrate when accumulation begins by one of the following methods:

    • Label or mark the universal waste container with the accumulation start date.

    • Mark each universal waste item with the date it became waste.

    • Maintain a waste inventory system with dates.

    • Maintain an inventory system that identifies the first date an item in a group of waste became a waste.

    • Place the wastes in a specific accumulation area with a set date.

    • Any other method that clearly demonstrates the accumulation time.

What Notifications Will Be Required?

A handler that generates 5,000 kg or more in a year must provide annual reports to DTSC with specified information. A handler that accepts universal waste PV from another handler (which can include other organizations, or other facilities of the same organization) must also provide DTSC with notifications.

What Standards Will Apply To Transportation For Offsite Management?

Shipments of universal waste PVs offsite do not require use of Uniform Hazardous Waste Manifests, but must meet tracking requirements:

  • Universal waste shipments must be only to another universal waste handler, an appropriate destination facility, or a foreign destination.

  • Universal wastes that meet Department of Transportation (DOT) definitions of “hazardous materials” must be shipped in compliance with DOT hazardous materials shipping standards.

  • Shippers must ensure that the receiving handler agrees to receive a shipment before initiating a shipment.

  • If a universal waste shipment is rejected by the destination facility, the originating handler must either receive the waste back, or agree with the receiving facility on a new destination.

  • A destination facility that rejects a shipment must inform the originating facility of the rejection and either send the waste back or agree with the sender on a new destination facility for the waste.

  • A universal waste handler that receives a shipment that includes hazardous waste must inform DTSC, and provide the name and address of the originator of the shipment.

  • Exports of universal waste are subject to the same types of international consent requirements as are hazardous waste exports.

  • Handlers, transporters, and destination facilities must retain required records of each shipment.

What’s Next?

DTSC has provided 60 days for public comments on the proposed rules, ending June 19, 2019. After the comment period ends, DTSC will determine whether to finalize requirements, which will apply in California. Readers should note that the  California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) are also investigating end-of-life PV issues relevant to their respective authorities.

Organizations that do not do business in California will not be directly affected, but should consider these rules anyway. Because installations of PV modules are increasing rapidly in many parts of the country, the relative importance of the waste stream will grow. I haven’t found US domestic volumes, but in 2016 the International Renewable Energy Agency estimated that there were about 250,000 metric tons of solar panel waste in the world, and that the figure could reach 78 million metric tons by 2050. More recently, the Solar Energy Industry Association just reported that total solar "installations" have nearly doubled from 1  million in 2016 to 1.9 million at present, and should hit 2 million in the next months and 4 million by 2023. As this is happening, remember that EPA established the universal waste management system to allow for state initiatives, and for EPA and other states to adopt comparable requirements. Accordingly, California’s rules would provide ready models for other jurisdictions to follow.

Self-Assessment Checklist

Does the organization manufacture or use photovoltaic modules?

If so, does the organization have procedures in place for managing waste PV modules?

If so, do the procedures include provisions comparable to universal waste requirements?

Where Do I Go For More Information?

  - Text of proposal 

Specialty Technical Publishers (STP) provides a variety of single-law and multi-law services, intended to facilitate clients’ understanding of and compliance with requirements. 

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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. 

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

Tags: California Legislation, Environmental risks, Environmental, EHS, EPA, Hazcom, RCRA