Recycling Solar PV Panels
As the number of solar panels installed on homes and businesses increases, so too does the potential for solar waste.
Good quality panels will last for in excess of 25 years, but not all are such good quality and some may fail earlier. In addition there can be transport and handling damages or some can be decommissioned early because of storm damage, or if replaced with a newer, more efficient model.
Solar panels are composed of photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert sunlight to electricity. When these panels enter landfills, valuable resources go to waste. And because solar panels contain toxic materials like lead that can leach out as they break down, landfilling also creates new environmental hazards.
A solar panel is essentially an electronic sandwich. The filling is a thin layer of crystalline silicon cells, which are insulated and protected from the elements on both sides by sheets of polymers and glass. It’s all held together in an aluminium frame. On the back of the panel, a junction box contains copper wiring that channels electricity away as it’s being generated.
Much like other e-waste before it, solar waste is a very real problem. However, the bulk of solar panels can be recycled – in fact, the aluminium frame, cables, junction box, glass, cells and circuit material are all reusable.
At a typical e-waste facility, this high-tech sandwich will be treated crudely. Recyclers often take off the panel’s frame and its junction box to recover the aluminium and copper, then shred the rest of the module, including the glass, polymers, and silicon cells, which get coated in a silver electrode and soldered using tin and lead. (Because the vast majority of that mixture by weight is glass, the resultant product is considered an impure, crushed glass.)
A small number of dedicated solar PV recyclers will go further and recover a solar panel’s more valuable components—namely, the silicon and silver.
Despite the recyclability of the modules, the process in which materials are separated can be tedious and requires advanced machinery. Here are the main steps involved in successfully recycling a silicon module:
- Removing the aluminium frame (100% reusable)
- Separating the glass along a conveyor belt (95% reusable)
- Thermal processing at 500 degrees Celsius
- This allows for the evaporation of small plastic components and allows the cells to be easier separated.
- Etching away silicon wafers and smelting them into reusable slabs (85% reusable)
How to Recycle Solar PV Panels
WHY RECYCLE? Unwanted electrical and electronic equipment is the UK’s fastest growing waste stream and photovoltaic (PV) panels are no exception and they can be recycled – saving natural resources and helping to protect the environment. If we do not recycle PV panels they will end up in landfill – a fast disappearing resource in the UK.
From 1st January 2014 the PV industry has a legal obligation to ensure that PV panels are collected and recycled and to remind you that PV panels can be recycled they are required to be marked with a crossed out wheeled bin. Do not dispose of old PV panels into landfill!
As a company registered with the PV CYCLE Distributor Take-back Scheme we can guarantee that old PV panels will be recycled. This Scheme operates only for PV panels installed on households or for old PV panels that may arise as waste in quantities similar to that which may be found on households. The recycling process is different according to the type of installation.
PV CYCLE distinguish between household quantities and waste from professional use.
Disposal Procedure < 20 Panels
Quantities which can be considered of a household origin and below 20 PV panels are taken back through Dedicated Collection Facilities (DCF) - such as Wind & Sun - free of charge.
Disposal Procedure > 20 Panels
Quantities above 20 PV panels arising from professional installations and solar farms are billed at cost and paid individually by the Producer (upon agreement) or by the waste holder directly. Collection will be scheduled after pre-payment to PV CYCLE.