Solar energy has become more popular across the world. Its value promises to be immense as the solar cells are compact and now more easy to produce than ever. The rapid growth of the solar industry over time has contributed to the increased production of solar panels. However, there’s a dark side to the continuous creation of solar panels that is rarely talked about – are these solar panels recyclable and how can we best dispose of them?
Most panels have an average lifespan of 20 to 30 years which implies that those installed at the beginning of this century are reaching this stage. While this equipment is usually recycled (or put in a landfill illegally), some companies export them to third-world countries. While recycling is the more environmental-friendly option, exporting these items to “downstream” partners might be more cost-effective. The market value of panel materials is good for newer recycled equipment, allowing for these partners to refurbish or reuse equipment that they do not dispose of outright. With the presence of toxic metals like arsenic and lead in solar panels, it’s becoming increasingly important to find new ways to manage this waste or they could get into the groundwater supply and potentially endanger public health.

What Parts of a Solar Panel Are Recyclable?

Solar panels are typically fabricated using glass, polymer, aluminum, silicon, lead, copper, and several other metals. Silicon is normally recyclable but it’s combined with metals like cadmium and lead to make the solar cells to be highly efficient. When it comes to recycling panels, its glass has to be broken to get rid of the cadmium, lead, and other harmful chemicals. It also doesn’t help that most PV modules consist almost entirely of glass. Besides, the presence of problematic impurities like antimony and plastic in the glass may not make it suitable for recycling to float glass.
Other equipment in a solar energy system like batteries and inverters can be processed or recycled to access the valuable materials they contain. Solar batteries typically have an average lifespan of about 5 to 15 years. Some types of solar batteries (lead-acid, cadmium) are more convenient to recycle than others (Lithium-ion).

Solar Panel Recycling Problems: Hazardous Waste

The lead and heavy metals in panels can cause significant health and environmental issues if they are leached into the soil. Other constituent materials of solar panels like silicon, arsenic, and copper are also potentially hazardous if introduced to the groundwater supply.
Cadmium can be easily washed off solar modules and leach into the soil. This can be a major concern in the recovery of solar panels destroyed in natural disasters like hurricanes or rainstorms. Solving environmental solar panel recycling issues largely depends on innovations that can replace crude disposal methods. Some of the industry’s most popular panels used for utility-scale installations, such as those manufactured by First Solar and Abound Solar, contain cadmium telluride (CdTe) and these solar panels, while having great conducting capability, provide hazardous waste challenges.

Reuse of Solar Panels

Several authorities on energy and waste are proposing mandatory recycling that will result in a promising increase in the market value of recovered materials. Considering that there is likely to be a limitation on the availability of the critical PV materials in the long term, recycling is equally a responsibility of their producers. Some solar panel fabrication companies have their own recycling plants to help solve for this problem. These organizations encourage customers to return their old panels for a price that corresponds with their value at that time.
However, in some cases, the expense of recycling panels is not sustainable, which is why some companies do not offer such an opportunity. Depending on their value, they may resell the old panels that still operate, but at lower efficiency. Several economies in the world are more interested in cheap solar panels. Some third-world countries don’t care much for less-efficient panels since they have the available land to install a large amount of them. The benefits of solar energy in remote areas helps to solve other issues, such as those related to public health and infrastructure.

Safe, Zero-Landfill Disposal

Solar panel manufacturers can partner with recycling service providers to set up innovations that maximize value recovery. Considering that the cost of starting a solar panel recycling program can be a problem, if  manufacturers collaborate with licensed and reliable recycling services, then these brands could be safeguarded from gray market threats and be inline with environmental compliance. This can be the difference between losing rare, valuable elements found in damaged or end-of-life solar equipment and recovering them for future use.

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