Circularity Fast Facts: The Big Picture of Solar Panel Recycling
- Photovoltaic modules have a lifespan of 25-30 years. This does not mean they are dead; it simply means their efficiency is significantly reduced (1).
- In the US, an estimated 80 million metric tons of PVs will reach end of life by 2050 (2).
- The environmental concerns of disposing PV modules in landfills are leaching of lead and cadmium and losing valuable resources such as aluminum, silver, and others. (3).
- A study in 2018 by the Electric Power Research Institute found that in the US, “PV module recycling is technically feasible…though it is not yet economical.” (3).
- The EU and Japan require solar panel recycling by law. However in the US, “there are currently no federal, state, or local regulations mandating PV module recycling” (3).
Take a moment to imagine this: a solar panel sitting in a landfill.
If you see the irony in this image then you understand that there are many factors at play while transitioning to a truly sustainable future. Renewable energy is a major driver in this change and so is the concept of circular economy. A circular economy is an economic and industrial ecosystem which is structured to prolong the value of material items to avoid the landfill as long as possible, if not altogether.
The huge elephant in the room with solar panels is what happens when a solar panel reaches the end of life?
Luckily, there are examples of great frameworks in legislation and technology to effectively recycle solar panels at the end of life. The European Union and Japan have succeeded in setting up the laws, infrastructure and technology to handle their aging panels largely because PV modules are considered hazardous waste and are required by law to be dealt with accordingly.
However, in the US, solar panels are not necessarily considered hazardous waste. Why is that?
Federal law dictates what happens to the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste through the RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act). And this act requires a TCLP (Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure) test to determine if a panel will leach hazardous materials to the environment (4). If it doesn’t leach, it is not considered hazardous waste. In other words, it can be considered non-hazardous and thrown in the landfill. Furthermore, if you can prove it is non-hazardous, it is fairly inexpensive to dispose of a panel in the landfill. This is largely why it is “not yet economical” to recycle solar panels in the US according to the Electric Power Research Institute.
So what can we do?
Solar panels are a symbol of a transition to a cleaner economy. However, if panels are simply thrown into the landfill at the end of use, have we really evolved? Have we really learned? Solar panels have the incredible potential to drive the planet to a sustainable future. In order to truly learn from our past, we must also find a new life for the valuable materials contained in each panel. Committing to the circularity of solar panels is a symbol for a truly sustainable future.
About The Author
Oakley is a chemical engineer and has spent the past 4 years of her career with BASF in various functions from R&D to engineering to management. She currently runs a company called Level Up Planet where she consults businesses and educates individuals on circular economy and sustainability.