Solar panel recycling presents an economic opportunity and can spawn new industries. A study by the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) estimates that by 2050, $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar panels. There are also repair and reuse opportunities for solar panels that fail prematurely. These repaired solar panels are often sold at a discount, creating opportunities in new markets where affordability is an issue.
What Parts of the Solar Panel Can Be Recycled?
Glass, plastic, aluminum, and silicon comprise 99 percent of the silicon-based solar panels. The assembly and variety of materials make solar panels relatively complex. Solar panels consist of 72 percent glass plus plastic, a variety of metals, including lead, copper, gallium, cadmium, and aluminum, along with silicon solar cells. It is a relatively tricky process to recycle solar panels, which involved dissembling, etching, and melting.
Lack of Solar Panel Recycling Policies in the U.S.
There are no national policies in the U.S., but some states are leading the way. Washington state has a solar stewardship program requiring manufacturers to collect panels at their end of life for recycling at no charge to the customer.
Europe, by contrast, has policies for solar panel recycling programs; the manufacturers are responsible for the takeback and recycling of their products. As a result, Europe is leading the way in solar panel recycling and has dedicated facilities that recycle panels for reuse.
How To Recycle Solar Panels
There exist a hodgepodge of options for recycling solar panels in the U.S. Recycle PV offers nationwide solar panel recycling services. Recycle PV is collaborating with PV Cycle to help move U.S. panels to recycling facilities in Europe. SEIA has a PV recycling working group that has identified preferred recycling partners through an evaluation process. First Solar and SunPower are PV panel manufacturers that have recycling programs for scrap, warranty returns, and end of life.
With depots located across North America, Cascade Eco Minerals (CEM) is a sound end-of-life recycling option. This company has a zero-landfill policy and exclusively recycles solar panels in-house, adding greater accountability.