We all know recycling is one of the easier ways to treat our earth and environment with respect. Solar panels are no different in that the materials that are leftover at the end of their life span would seem to have nowhere to go other than a landfill. And with the increasing number of PV systems that are being installed in the US, finding a way to dispose of panels is essential.
As positive the effects of solar are while they’re active, we have to wonder what happens to the panels after their average life of thirty years ends. Like any manufactured product, solar panels are made up of crystalline silicon and even heavy metals like cadmium and lead. These can definitely harm our environment if not gotten rid of properly. The other components of a solar panel include the metal framing, wires, and plexiglass: all materials that can be reused. And even though silicon isn’t recyclable in the way that glass and plastic are, silicon can be melted down and reused. This also means recycling solar panels can get tricky because of all the different materials that require different methods of recycling.
While disposing of solar panels might be a little more complicated than you anticipated it’s totally doable. As I said, solar panels have a lot of good things in them that we can recover, even if it is a little tricky with them all being mixed together. According to Green Match, nearly 95% of the glass recovered can be reused, and all of the external metal parts can be repurposed to remold new cell frames!
Plus, when panels are recycled it can actually positively affect our economy! When we’re able to recover elements like gallium and indium that exist in limited amounts on our planet, we get to reuse them for future solar panels and other products. According to a 2016 study by the International Renewable Agency, it’s estimated that $15 billion could be recovered from recycled solar panels by the year 2050. That’s a lot of money.
If that still doesn’t have you convinced, if we don’t take the step into the future by finding a place to recycle our panels, we may very well be sitting in over sixty million tons of PV waste. After everything else that is thrown into our landfills, the last thing we need is our means to clean energy clogging them up. And if we do take the leap, we could potentially produce over two billion new panels from recycled materials by 2050. In my opinion, recovering materials is a lot better (financially and environmentally) than mining for these elements.
So ultimately, what the United States needs are companies that will take on this challenge and tackle the hard job of recycling solar panels. I’m here to tell you there are multiple organizations doing just that. Traditionally, solar panels were recycled at glass recycling facilities or even burned, however, now there are numerous organizations working towards the revolution of recycling solar panels. Here are just a few:
This company spearheaded bringing solar recycling to the U.S. They have partnered with a nonprofit called PV Cycle to move U.S panels to European recycling facilities. Europe is quite more advanced when it comes to panel recycling efforts, so it is an excellent option, particularly in the near term.
This is another company located in Europe. Veolia also partners with PV Cycle to help collect and recycle solar panels. Their first recycling plant was opened in 2018 where robots separate glass, silicon, plastics, and metals from the panels!
If you’ve installed solar, you’ve probably heard of the SEIA. They also have a PV recycling working group that chooses partners to help them recycle. And if you’re a member of the SEIA you can receive special pricing from these partners who will then recycle your solar panels for you! One example of these partners is Cleanlites, which recycle not only panels but all other solar equipment.
As you can see, the action of recycling solar panels is slowly gaining speed here in the United States. If we want to see our climate and planet return to a healthy state, we must recycle. That means solar panels too. Not to mention, having a plan of disposal when your panels reach the end of their life is a privilege you deserve. So while the trend might not be widespread, the positive impact of solar systems and recycling them is only going to increase. We have some time, but the time for action is of course now. By recycling solar panels we are not only aiding our environment to thrive but also setting up a strong future for our economy and future energy use for generations to come.