It’s a sign of the times that solar panels have become so widespread and so important that now we have to worry about recycling them.
But the world’s booming source of environmentally-friendly power is creating a waste management issue that will grow exponentially in the coming decades.
“This may not be a huge deal yet, but this issue is here and we need to handle it,” said Echo Environmental President Tommy McGuire. “It would certainly be a terrible irony if something that creates clean energy winds up clogging landfills for centuries.”
Solar panels are designed to last about 25 or 30 years. That means that solar panels installed in the 1980s and 1990s are coming offline, while newer ones that are damaged or defective need to be disposed of as well.
It also means that the huge upsurge in solar installations in the past decade, a trend that is certain to continue, will spark an end-of-life boom by 2030.
“Time is ticking,” wrote Kelly Pickerel, editor of Solar Power World. “The United States has about 15 years before solar panel recycling becomes a major issue. Plenty of time to figure out the best course of action, but also plenty of time to procrastinate.”
A typical solar panel consists of 65-75 percent glass, with smaller amounts of aluminum, plastic, silicon, copper and other metals. Separating and recycling those materials is complicated.
But nobody wants them in landfills, especially since some components of photovoltaic cells, such as silver and cadmium, are considered environmental hazards that can leach into soil and water supplies.
The solar panel recycling business is still evolving. European regulations require that panels be recycled, and the continent’s first comprehensive solar panel recycling facility recently opened in France. In the U.S., individual state initiatives are gradually creating a patchwork of requirements, but there is no national policy yet.
That’s not stopping recycling efforts from ramping up in the meantime. Echo Environmental’s facility in Carrollton, Texas, receives solar panels and evaluates whether they can be refurbished for further use – always the first choice in recycling.
If not, they are disassembled and shredded. The aluminum frames, glass and photovoltaic panels are sent for processing, all in accordance with R2 environmental standards.
“There is still a cost involved in this,” McGuire said. “I’m sure in the years to come, this will become a much bigger business, the economy of scale will kick in, and the recycling will pay for itself.
“But the environmental benefit of keeping solar panels out of landfills is the overriding factor right now, and it’s the right thing to do. We’re proud to be part of the solution.”