By the early 2030s, as one large wave of solar panels is reaching the end of life, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that there could be as much as 8 million metric tons of total solar panel waste. By 2050, that could jump to as much as 78 million metric tons of cumulative waste. “We’re looking at an emerging waste stream which has the potential to go to pretty large volumes over the next decade,” says Andreas Wade, who leads global sustainability for First Solar, a solar panel manufacturer that is taking on the problem with a circular approach.

At a recycling plant in Ohio, next to the company’s manufacturing facility, First Solar uses custom technology to disassemble and recycle old panels, recovering 90% of the materials inside. It runs similar recycling systems in Germany and Malaysia. Right now, the holistic lifecycle approach isn’t common among other solar producers. But Wade says that now is the time to think about the problem. “Our aim for solar is to help our customers decouple their economic growth from negative environmental impacts,” he says. “So it is kind of a mandatory point for us to address the renewable-energy-circular-economy nexus today and not 20 years from now.”

The E.U. requires solar producers to recycle products, and similar laws are in the works in some other parts of the world, including Japan and India. In the U.S., so far, only the State of Washington requires solar panel recycling; the majority of old solar panels in the country end up in landfills now, wasting valuable materials such as silicon and risking the spread of toxic components such as lead.

By recycling materials, the total environmental impact of each panel drops. The original solar panel, Wade says, might last 30 or even 40 years. If 95% of the semiconductor material can be recovered and put back in a new panel, and the cycle continues to repeat, the original material could stay in use as long as 1,200 years. At the moment, because of the huge demand for solar panels and the fact that many haven’t yet reached the end of their life, the total percentage of recycled material in the company’s new panels is low. But it will grow over time.

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Author: Adele Peters, Fast Company
Image: First Solar