By James Turing and Dr Jamie Cross
Over the past three years the University of Edinburgh has established close relationships with social enterprises and private companies involved in Africa’s off grid solar industry.
MSc and PhD students, for example, have collaborated with SolarAid, the largest distributor of solar-powered lanterns in Africa, through the University’s work-based placement scheme and a co-funded doctoral research project.
One outcome of these collaborations has been a major new focus on issues around the management of waste products in the solar industry.
On the 20 and 21 July, the University of Edinburgh is hosting the first ever global workshop on solar waste, repair and recycling in Nairobi, funded by an Impact Acceleration Award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
This workshop brings together e-waste recyclers, solar manufacturers, electronic repair technicians and product designers with University of Edinburgh researchers to address the practical question of what happens to batteries, micro-electronic circuit boards, wires and plastics when solar powered systems break down.
Through presentations and group discussion the workshop aims to promote the idea of a ‘circular economy’ in the off-grid solar industry and disseminate ‘design for environment’ principals that support repair, reuse, and recycling.
In Kenya these questions are particularly timely. Proposals for new e-waste legislation promise to levy additional taxes on all solar products, aimed at covering the costs of waste collection and recycling. This workshop comes as a diverse range of people and organisations in Kenya work to establish a new model for off-grid solar repair and recycling, with a view to duplicating it across sub-Saharan Africa.
The workshop will culminate with the launch of an initiative – the Pico-solar Scorecard – that aims to promote sustainable design in the off-grid solar industry. Developed in collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and the Turing Trust, this Scorecard will rank and rate solar lighting products being sold in sub-Saharan Africa based on how easy they are to disassemble, repair and recycle.
Over the next three years students, researchers and faculty at the University of Edinburgh will take these collaborations forward. As they do, our aspiration is that the University makes both an academic contribution to how we understand emerging waste flows from renewable energy technologies in the Global South and an applied contribution to Africa’s solar future.
James Turing is Director of the Turing Trust and (from Sept 2015) Leverhulme Perfect Storm Doctoral Scholar.
Dr Jamie Cross is Co-Director of the University of Edinburgh’s Global Development Academy and Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology.