Solar Panels Are Recyclable — But They’re Still Ending Up In Landfills

Many homeowners across the country are switching to solar power. More than 4 million installations are expected in the US by 2023.

The goal: save money on electricity bills and help the environment. But there is one thing that many owners do not think about: disposal at the end of its service life. Although solar panels – also known as photovoltaic or PV modules – can be recycled, researchers say many end up in landfills. Why? Recycling is expensive.

“A solar panel could generate $ 2 worth of commodities after my company, or a company like us, spent between $ 15 and $ 25 to fix this,” said AJ Orben, vice president of We Recycle Solar.

Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, solar panels are considered hazardous waste until proven otherwise. This can be determined by a toxicity test. If the panels pass the test, they can go to a normal landfill. If panels fail the test or are not tested, they must contact a hazardous waste treatment facility or solar panel recycling center with a permit to handle these materials. However, these options are more expensive than taking them to a local landfill, which is why some people still throw them in a regular landfill.

“As things keep moving forward and photovoltaic installation continues, recycling costs will only decrease because of economies of scale,” said Garvin Heath, senior scientist at NREL.

But until that happens, owners will have to pay more to have modules recycled. Heath says they don’t want the material to be wasted.

“We want to reclaim these resources,” said Heath. “We don’t want them locked up in a landfill.”

The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that by 2050 the world could see up to 78 million tons of raw materials and other valuable parts of solar panels by the end of their life. If these precious resources flow back into the economy, it could bring in more than $ 15 billion.

In the European Union, solar module manufacturers must properly recycle the modules. There’s nothing like it at the federal level in the US, so it’s up to the states.

In 2017, Washington State passed a law requiring solar module manufacturers to recycle all modules sold after a certain date.

“I don’t know that the responsibility should rest with the manufacturer or the consumer alone,” Orben said. “But I think yes, there has to be some kind of subsidization of opportunities for this to really work.”

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