Ask the Expert, Hazardous Waste Operations, Sustainability

Ask the Expert: TCLP Tests on Solar Panels

In our latest installment of Ask the Expert, brought to you by the team of industry experts at EHS Hero®, we look at a recent question from a subscriber asking about performing a Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) test on a broken solar panel. See what the experts had to say. 

Q: Is there any guidance to perform a TCLP on a broken solar panel if the panel is going to a recycler and not for disposal?

If the solar panels are sent to a recycler that can legitimately recycle them, it is unlikely that a TCLP test would be necessary. As you know, the purpose of a TCLP test is to determine if any toxic substances could leach into a landfill. Materials that fail the TCLP test are considered hazardous wastes that are subject to the hazardous waste regulations.

You subsequently added the following information to your original question:

  • Most broken solar panels can still produce electricity although they are less efficient
  • If such cracked or broken panels are sent to a recycler, is that the same as sending product not waste?
  • If the panels are a product and not waste, would they need a TCLP test before being sent to the recycler?

With this additional information, it would appear that the issue could involve whether the panels, as you have described them, could be considered a “hazardous secondary material” (HSM) which is defined at 40 CFR 260.10 as “a secondary material (e.g., spent material, byproduct, or sludge) that, when discarded, would be identified as hazardous waste under 40 CFR 261.” (Solar panels would be identified as a hazardous waste due to their toxic metal content.)

HSM can be excluded from solid waste regulation under the EPA’s “Definition of Solid Waste” (DSW) rule. (Of course, if a material is not defined as a solid waste, it cannot be a hazardous waste.) The DSW rule includes several conditional exclusions from the definition of solid waste at 40 CFR 261.4 for HSM. The applicable one in your scenario would be the conditional exclusion at 40 CFR 261.4(a)(24) known as the “conditional solid waste transfer-based exclusion” that allows a HSM to be sent to a reclamation facility provided certain conditions are met.

Key among the exemption conditions are that the recycling is not deemed “sham recycling” (defined at 40 CFR 261.2). Some considerations in making a sham recycling determination include whether the HSM is effective for the claimed use and whether the facility manages the HSM as a valued commodity or as a discarded material.

The exclusion also requires that the HSM is not being “accumulated speculatively” (defined at 40 CFR 261.1(c)(8)). A material is not accumulated speculatively if the person accumulating the material can show that it is potentially recyclable and has a feasible means of being recycled.

The HSM must also be ‘legitimately recycled” (as defined at 40 CFR 260.43). If a process is not deemed legitimate recycling, the activity would be considered waste treatment or disposal subject to regulation under the hazardous waste regulations.

If the conditions of this DSW conditional exclusion cannot be met (and if no other hazardous waste exclusion applies), the solar panels would require management as a hazardous waste and a TCLP test would be advisable.