Are solar panels the next big thing in the world of recycling?

As more and more people embrace cleaner, greener options like solar power, we need to start thinking about what happens to solar panels once they stop working. The UK has more than 1.3 million domestic solar installations, and around 500 operational solar farms, making solar panel recycling an important topic when considering the environmental impact of this type of electricity.

How long does a solar panel last?

As they don’t contain moving parts and aren’t exposed to the wear and tear of manual use, solar panels tend to last for a long time. They generally come with a 25-year warranty, but it’s common for them to continue working well after this point, with a lifespan of up to 40 years.

However, we’re now approaching a time where the first generations of solar panels are starting to wear out in huge amounts, leading to a tidal wave of solar waste. Mool Gupta, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Virginia, estimates that global solar waste will reach 78 million tons by 2050. It’s therefore essential to adopt a global policy of solar panel recycling and recovery.

Can solar panels be recycled?

Solar panels are almost entirely constructed from materials that are easy to recycle and reuse. Typically, around 80% of the materials in a solar panel can be recovered, making them an environmentally friendly option throughout their entire lifecycle.

Copper, silver, aluminium, glass, and crystalline silicon are all high-value materials that can be recovered from defunct solar panels and used to manufacture new products. However, recycling and recovery isn’t standard practice across the world, as the process is complex and costs much more than simply sending them to landfill.

How are solar panels recycled?

Solar panels are manually dismantled before being crushed. The components are then separated and collected for use in manufacturing other products. Some types of solar panels require chemical baths to separate the various semiconductor materials, which allows for even more of the raw materials to be recovered. The techniques and technologies used for solar panel recycling has improved over the years, with 80–95% of the components able to be reused.

What happens once my solar panels need replacing?

The EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Waste Directive (WEEE) was transposed into UK law in 2006 and requires all electronic waste to be recycled. This means that, once they stop working, your solar panels need to be properly disposed of and sent for processing.

Your installer is legally obliged to take and recycle your old solar panels free of charge, so you just need to get in touch with them, or another solar installer, to arrange collection. You’ll likely be replacing any broken units with new ones that will need to be professionally installed anyway, so this is a convenient option. Recycle Solar in Scunthorpe is currently the only solar panel recycling centre in the UK. You can also contact them directly for collection, or use a scheme such as PV Cycle.

The future of solar panel recycling

As solar technology improves and is more widely adopted around the world, more needs to be done to not only facilitate but to enforce the recycling of solar panels.

Thanks to the WEEE Directive, European countries currently recycle most solar panels, but other nations are working to improve their statistics. The US now has 23 solar panel recycling centres across the country, while China, which leads the world in manufacturing but leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to recycling initiatives, has drawn up plans to create a solar panel recycling infrastructure by the end of the decade.

As EU solar panel manufacturers are legally obliged to collect and recycle broken units, this encourages the industry to develop products that are easier to recycle and use fewer virgin materials in their construction. Passing the responsibility of recycling end-of-life solar panels to manufacturers in more countries could be a great way to improve uptake rates and reduce the overall cost of recycling and manufacturing in the future, making an already green energy source even greener.

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