Michael Harbert, Echo Environmental’s senior manager for business development, told a North Texas recycling conference last week that the company is gearing up to meet the next big challenge in electronic recycling: solar panels.
Harbert was a panelist at a North Texas Corporate Recycling Association session in Fort Worth on August 17 that posed the question, “How can recycling programs be successful in all settings?”
In his remarks, Harbert, who joined Echo earlier this year, focused on several answers to that question. “You have to start off educating, educating, educating all the time,” he said. “It’s a never-ending process.”
That education ranges from stressing the importance of recycling to specifying what can and cannot be recycled. But the support for recycling also must come from the top, Harbert said.
“You have to have that person at the top who is willing to push things through,” he told the conference. “Because sometimes it may not look economical at the beginning.”
He cited two current examples where that is the case. China’s new restrictions on importing recycled plastic are causing huge problems for U.S. recycling programs, forcing many American cities to halt or limit collections because they are no longer economically feasible.
“They used China so much because it was cost prohibitive not to go there,” Harbert said. “Now you’re going to see more and more companies forced into a position where they have to deal with this plastics issue. It’s all about economics, because the technology is there. I think you’ll see more American companies rise and deal with that issue.”
Plastic isn’t the only sector where economic necessities are generating innovation, he said. “I see the same thing happening in glass right now as well.”
Glass is a particular focus for Echo Environmental, Harbert said, as the need grows to recycle solar panels.
“Solar panel farms are growing faster than you can imagine,” he said. “It’s not necessarily an emergency thing now, but it certainly will be very soon.”
Between older solar installations starting to come offline and newer units that malfunction or are damaged by storms, he said, “You have to have an outlet for it, and many of these green energy companies do not want to landfill this stuff. They want a good recycling solution.”
Right now those solutions often cost money because of need to separate glass, aluminum and other components of solar panels and the limited markets for them. “But we’re seeing a lot of innovation from the team at Echo to recycle and looking at ways to lower the cost,” he said.
As with all electronic recycling, he said, the first goal is reuse – if the equipment is usable and the customer agrees. “If the solar panel glass is still fresh and not broken, there’s still the opportunity to repair that panel and get some extended life out of it through replacement of diodes and other components,” he said. “So we’ve also started a refurbishing program.”
But if that’s not possible, Harbert said, “We’ll go ahead and recycle. Last year at my previous company, I saw over 2½ million pounds of solar panels recycled. At Echo we hope to do that much or more in 2019, and we’re excited about that.”