All technology has its benefits, but there are also downsides, especially when the technology is newer. Solar panels tap into the sun’s energy to help power homes and businesses. They’re providing energy to homes and businesses across the nation without the pollution that a fossil fuel plant creates. But, the panels only last so long. Current estimates put the lifespan of a solar panel at approximately 28 years. Most of them show signs of degradation by the 25th year. Once they no longer produce energy, it’s time to remove them.
What happens now? About 80% of a solar panel contains materials that recyclers can easily recycle. That’s the good news. They don’t have to go to a landfill where they slowly break down for centuries. What about the other 20%? Those materials can also be recycled, but it takes more time.
Before you can understand how solar panel recycling works, it’s crucial to know how a solar panel is made.
The Components in a Solar Panel
Solar panels are constructed from metal, glass, plastic, and silicon wafers. They’re installed onto metal frames on a roof or freestanding frames in residential yards, solar farms, or open fields. The metal frames don’t get recycled if you remove the solar panels and replace them with newer ones. If you’re not replacing the old solar panels, the metal framing and wiring also get recycled with the old panels. One panel contains the following materials.
- PET/PVF plastic laminate backsheet
- EVA plastic film
- A combination of silicon wafers, aluminum, lead, silicon nitride anti-reflective film, and silver
- A second sheet of the EVA plastic film
- Low-Fe glass
- An aluminum frame
The adhesive can’t be recycled, but the silicon, plastic, metal, and glass can be. It has to be done carefully, however, so it’s not a simple process. It cost $20 to $30 per panel to recycle versus up to $2 to bring it to a landfill per 2020 estimates. Recovering as many materials from a solar panel is the best way to make it economical for companies to opt for recycling.
Don’t Laws Make Them Easy to Recycle?
In the U.S., no federal laws mandate solar panel recycling. The federal government leaves it up to states. Some states have started to take action. Washington state implemented a requirement to have PV module manufacturers pay for takeback and reuse or recycling by mid-2023. California declared solar panels as universal hazardous waste in 2021. States like Hawaii, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Rhode Island are looking at options.
In the 2000s, solar panel manufacturers presented homeowners around the nation with zero-cost installation that allowed them to put leased solar panels on their roofs. These incentives made solar possible for anyone to afford solar power. Companies like SunPower offered these leases for 15 years. When 15 years end, which is fast approaching, the panels are removed. If there are 15 panels on a home and 100 homes in one town signed up, that’s 1,500 panels that installers now have to figure out what to do.
For homeowners that bought solar panels in the 2000s, the end-of-life date is fast approaching. Few solar companies have take-back programs. When the panels no longer work effectively, you face the cost of removing them and recycling them. Will your solar panel company take them back? It’s hard to tell. One company considered it and developed an on-site recycling facility. Still, they only offer “unconditional prefunded” collection and recycling to customers who purchased their panels before 2013 and require them to follow the instructions on the labels.
Another company directs consumers who own panels to the Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) site to search for a local recycling facility. A lack of options makes it hard to find what you need locally. During a search of a smaller state like Vermont, only one facility came up, and it was hours from many northern cities and towns. Most consumers will need to consider paying to ship their panels to a solar panel recycler, increasing the risk that people will trash them rather than recycle them.
This is why many states are working on regulations to ensure solar panels get recycled. It all starts with training and education. Knowing how solar panels are recycled is the first step.
What Happens at a Solar Panel Recycling Facility?
Those are the only hurdles to recycling PV modules and solar panels. The benefits are tremendous and worth the time and effort. If you think about the fact that there are more than 2 million solar installations in the U.S. That number keeps increasing. One panel is about 40 pounds of metal, glass, and plastic. Two million panels weigh approximately 80 million pounds. Imagine all of that going into a landfill!
Recycling solar panels is always the best choice, but what happens in a PV management/solar panel recycling facility? How are these materials collected and recycled?
The panels have to be collected. If you use a solar panel recycler like ERI, drivers can pick up the panels and bring them to one of the eight facilities for processing. You have proof that the solar panels were picked up and track their journey from the moment they leave your home or business.
Now that the panels are in the facility, the frame and panel are disassembled. Contamination has to be minimized. It takes skill to dismantle and gather the raw materials properly and safely. Once the aluminum is removed and collected, it heads off to a factory to be melted down for reuse.
Next up is the glass. Before it can head to shredders and continue its journey to a plant to be melted down for reuse, the silicon and plastic must be removed. Exposing the glass to high temperatures melts off the plastic. That plastic goes through shredders and into bins for collection before it goes to plants that convert it into plastic pellets for reuse. Acid baths separate the silicon.
Silicon also undergoes a melting process where it goes into molds to create blocks that are shaved into new wafers for monocrystalline cells. Some silicon is melted and fused to panels (polycrystalline). No matter the method, the recycled silicon helps make new PV modules. In addition, recycled silicon also goes into lithium-ion batteries.
How Effective Are Modern Recycling Methods?
Done correctly, it’s estimated that almost all of the metal is reused. Approximately 95% of the glass is reused, 85% of the silicon, and 80% of the rest. It’s newer recycling technology that requires skilled workers, so some recycling facilities do better than others. Choose a leader in e-waste recycling to ensure the proper steps are taken to maximize the PV modules and solar power components that are recycled.
How do you make sure your panels are correctly recycled? Look for certifications that ensure items are recycled in the U.S. and never shipped to other countries. Ideally, you’re partnering with a company that holds valid e-Stewards, NAID, and R2 certificates. ERI is the first electronic waste recycler with multiple locations to have all of those certificates. Call us at 1-800-ERI-DIRECT to discuss your solar panel recycling needs.