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Life After Death: Recycling Solar Panels

Kaitlin LindrosJuly 26, 20191650

What happens to solar panels when they reach the end of their life? 

While solar panels are great sources of emissions-free, clean energy while they are installed, with little-to-no environmental impact during their life, the story changes once they live out their usefulness and need to be decommissioned.

Panels often end up in landfills, creating huge amounts of solar waste, and possibly leaking toxins into the earth, if not disposed of properly. In order to keep solar green, we need to put solutions in place to properly dispose of solar waste, and, if possible, recycle them into new panels for the best enivonmental impact.

Recycle solar waste

Most residential homes use silicon-based solar panels, which have an average life span of 20-30 years, with panels experiencing reduced efficiency towards the end of this time. 

With the recent solar boom, that means that in a couple decades, we will be seeing a huge number of solar panels reaching the end of their life cycle, with a projected 60 million tons of PV waste by 2050, up from a miniscule 43,500 tons in 2017. 

Unfortunately, solar panels are not as environmentally friendly once they are no longer producing solar energy. Some solar panels can contain toxic heavy metals, like cadmium or lead, which may leach into the ground, if the cells break in a landfill. 

Solar panels are also not the easiest to recycle, though nations worldwide are working hard, researching solutions to make it more streamlined and affordable, recognizing the urgent need to put a process in place before we become inundated with solar waste in the coming years. 

Here’s a quick look at the challenges faced in solar recycling, the current processes in place, and the proposed solutions to make it better.  

Challenges in Solar Recycling

Solar recycling is a relatively new process in the solar industry, since panels only recently became widespread. As a result, there are not many regulations, facilities, or effective processes dedicated to recycling solar panels yet in the US. But the potential for enormous growth in recycling is there, with possibly dire consequences if something isn’t done soon.  

Here are the biggest obstacles faced for those trying to expand this renewable practice. 

Many components

Because solar panels are made up of so many different materials and components in one device, it can be difficult to efficiently separate the parts in order to recycle them properly. 

Silicon solar panels are made up of silicon solar cells, metal/aluminum framing, glass sheets, wire and plexiglas. 

Thin-cell solar panels include solid and liquid materials, making them a bit more challenging to recycle. They also include semiconductors like cadmium, which can be toxic.

While many still classify solar panels as general waste, more places, like California, are re-classifying them as low-level hazardous e-waste, requiring the same treatment as electronics like phone and laptops, so that panels don’t end up polluting the environment in landfills.   

Recycling solar panels is not currently very economical

While panels do contain some valuable materials, they don’t contain as much as other electronics. Therefore, there isn’t enough gain to make up for the high costs of breaking solar panels down into recyclable parts. Without the economical incentives, it can be hard to get companies on board with recycling programs.

As a temporary measure, the Electric Power Research Institute suggested that solar panels be stockpiled or stored long-term in separate landfills or shipping containers. But we still need to look into ways to make recycling a more profitable venture, both for our economy and our environment.

What Happens During Solar Panel Recycling?

Once your silicon solar panels stop performing, how can you recycle them, and what happens during this process? Currently, there are different options available, depending on where you live. 

Traditionally, panels have been recycled at general purpose glass recycling facilities, with metal and glass parts salvaged and remaining parts disposed of. This means much of the components are still not being recycled.

But now, more organizations are working to streamline recycling to be able to recover more of the materials in the panels. 

Recycling in Europe

In Europe, where the solar industry is more established, government regulations require recycling of panels, creating a better market for solar recycling. 

One major company is Veolia, which partners with nonprofit PC Cycle to collect and recycle panels. 

They also opened the first solar recycling plant in France in 2018, with an automated process for separating glass, silicon, plastics, and metals from panels.

Recycling in the US

While the US doesn’t have enough of a solar market or government solar regulations for a solar recycling plant yet, it’s well on the way, and we would do well to follow Europe’s example by putting recycling requirements in place. 

Until then, one US company, Recycle PV, is partnering with PV Cycle to move US solar panels to Europe for recycling. 

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) also has a Recycling Working Group with partners that give special pricing to SEIA members in exchange for recycling panels at their facilities. While not dedicated entirely to solar, these facilities can more easily handle solar equipment. But the Group still has trouble getting companies to sign up, without much financial incentive to do so. 

Some individual solar companies are also working towards greener disposal methods by offering recycling. 

SunPower and First Solar offer global recycling programs for customers, allowing panels to be returned to the manufacturer. We hope more companies will follow this example!

Recycling Solutions for the Future

Before the problem of mounting solar waste explodes, now is the time to put solutions in place for recycling solar panels. If we are to fight climate change, we need to make sure solar is green, from start to finish. Here are some of the ways the US might solve this issue moving forward.

Fees for recycling included in the cost

One solution to boost solar recycling in the US is to add fees to solar panel purchases, so that the cost of removing and recycling panels is covered internally, rather than by taxpayers. It would also inventivize more companies to responsibly dispose of solar panels for their customers. 

Government mandated recycling and infrastructure

Once solar is more established in the US, government regulations mandating recycling programs, like those in Europe, would help develop infrastructure like recycling facilities down the road and force companies to find recycling solutions for their customers. It would also create new jobs and recoverable value, making it possible to produce more solar panels without investing in new raw materials. 

Federal programs/laws 

Finally, federal programs should be put in place to educate the public about recycling solar panels so they don’t end up in landfills.

Laws should be put in place allowing citizens the legal right to sue agencies and corporations when they do not abide by environmental rules. Society needs a way to keep solar companies in check to protect communities from toxic waste, just as with any other business. That way we can all stay accountable for our impact on the globe.

Do you think solar panel recycling should be a requirement in your area? Leave a comment below. 

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