The Vital Role of Solar Panel Recycling in the Circular Economy

April 12, 2024

Recycling old photovoltaic panels is an essential sector of the circular economy. Solar technology contributes significantly to combatting climate change. Yet, as numerous solar panels near their end of life, owners of solar panel systems encounter the challenge of responsibly disposing of old PV panels.

Solar panel recycling prevents chemical substances from entering landfills and polluting the environment. It also offers job opportunities in green energy and allows us to conserve and utilize resources to produce new solar panels.

Given the advantages of solar panel recycling, let’s investigate how safe PV disposal can become an effective circular economy model.

Popular Myths About Solar Panels Busted 5

What Is Circular Economy?

A circular economy represents a production and consumption model that relies on leasing, sharing, reusing, refurbishing, and recycling manufactured items and products as long as possible. It contrasts with a linear economic model based on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy produced.

A circular economy aims to expand and prolong existing products’ lifecycles. Focusing on the practical implications of the circular economy model helps reduce waste and keep a product within the economy wherever possible.

Let’s explore the myriad of advantages offered by the circular economy model.

Circular Economy Benefits the Environment

Effective product recycling helps slow down the use of natural resources and prevent negative impacts on landscapes and habitats to stop biodiversity loss.

Another advantage of the circular economy is the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. The European Environment Agency reports that industrial processes and product use constitute around 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the American manufacturing sector produces around 12% of gas emissions.

A global transition to the circular economy and gradual adoption of more reliable products that can be recycled, upgraded, and reused help reduce the amount of waste worldwide.

Circular Economy Is a Key to Raw Material Independence

The growing global population drives up demand for raw materials, yet manufacturers face constraints due to limited crucial supplies. That is why circular economy principles can benefit the market.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, US manufacturers rely heavily on foreign countries for rare earth minerals. Recycling raw materials helps avoid the dangerous dependence on improved raw materials and mitigates risks such as material availability and price volatility. These risks are especially evident in sustainable technologies like electric batteries and engines.

Circular Economy Helps Tackle Unemployment

Transitioning to a circular economy will increase competitiveness and stimulate innovation. Such a boost in economic development will help create more job opportunities. Increased reuse and recycling of products can generate up to 8 million new jobs.

In addition, redesigning materials according to circular economy principles encourages innovative initiatives across different sectors of the economy. Exposure to more durable and advanced products will increase the quality of life of regular consumers by saving their financial resources.

Circular Economy Principles

The circular economy operates using three simple principles:

  • To design out waste and pollution
  • To keep products and materials in use
  • To regenerate natural systems

Source: Planet Ark

Designing out Waste Pollution

According to this principle, the circular economy encourages the supply chain to avoid waste and pollution. It can be achieved by designing and developing proper products. Most waste from a flawed product structure contributes to air, water, and land pollution.

Keeping Products and Materials in Use

Manufacturers adopting a circular economy model avoid practices using up finite resources. Instead, they rely on various forms of recycling. The end goal of such businesses is to use bio-based materials to have a positive impact not only on the economy but on the environment, too.

Regenerating Natural Systems

The idea behind this principle is that circular economy models aim to support the regeneration of natural resources. For example, some agriculture services reward farmers for adopting low-till farming in conservation cropping. It allows the trap of carbon dioxide in the ground and reduces the impact of agriculture on climate change.

How Can Solar Energy Use Circular Economy Principles?

Couple of solar engineers installing solar cells on the roof

Solar energy can benefit significantly from circular economy models. The typical lifespan of a PV panel ranges between 25-30 years, and many will require effective disposal methods because of the decline in efficiency. The industry’s continuous growth prompts business owners to strategize on managing solar panel waste.

According to the data presented by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), around 250,000 tonnes of solar panel waste had accumulated by 2016. However, by 2050, waste streams will achieve a staggering 5 million tonnes yearly. It makes solar panel recycling one of the prospects for circular economy development.

How Does Solar Panel Recycling Work?

Solar panel recycling adopts various technologies to ensure safe and effective solar panel disposal. Solar panel recycling companies can reuse solar arrays or opt for mechanical recycling/ chemical recycling.

How Does Solar Panel Recycling Work?

Source: Ecoexperts

Let’s discuss in detail the pros and cons of each method.

Solar Panel Re-Using

Let’s start by defining the terms “recycling” and “re-using.” Solar panel recycling is dismantling solar panels to extract their component materials and then applying those recovered materials for other purposes.

Solar panel re-using approaches the solar waste problem from a completely different perspective. One of the most significant advantages of PV module re-suing is how little processing it requires. It makes sense to install reused solar panels on small off-grid facilities where efficient energy-producing electricity isn’t essential.

For instance, solar panel recycling applies to solar chargers. In other cases, refurbished PV panels don’t produce enough electricity to satisfy the needs of large solar arrays.

Mechanical Solar Panel Recycling

Mechanical recycling is the solar panel recycling process that consists of breaking down solar panels into their components. Thus, with the help of mechanical recycling, it is possible to extract the aluminum framing from a solar panel. Then, the remaining materials, such as silicon, glass, and various metals, are transformed into so-called “glass cullet.” This mixture can further become a building material.

Some solar panel recycling companies use mechanical methods to remove aluminum frames, intra-cell wiring, and silicon successfully.

Chemical Solar Panel Recycling

Chemical (or thermal) solar panel recycling is the most intriguing form of solar panel disposal.

Unlike mechanical processes, chemical solar panel recycling uses reactions at a molecular level. It allows the removal of separate ingredients in a PV panel.

For example, a French startup company, ROSI Solar, uses chemical processes to remove the silver wires that transmit electricity through silicon cells in working PV panels.

What Are the Benefits of Solar Panel Recycling?

What Are the Benefits of Solar Panel Recycling?

Most homeowners adopt solar energy technology because it is an inexpensive and emission-free alternative to traditional fossil-fuel energy sources. However, it is not free from specific drawbacks.

In 30 years, many crystalline silicon solar panel owners will notice decreased solar energy production, meaning they will have to deal with solar panel recycling. If not disposed of properly, they will end up in landfills, releasing toxins and polluting the environment.

It makes the necessity of solar panel recycling obvious. Let’s investigate two main benefits of solar panel recycling for the circular economy and the environment.

Solar Panel Recycling Is Environmentally Friendly

Solar panel recycling, like any other manufactured product, takes a toll on environmental resources. Solar cells contain heavy metals, such as cadmium and lead. They are potentially hazardous waste if not recycled according to a required procedure.

Unfortunately, because the solar panel recycling industry is still in its early stages, many solar panels end up in landfills, contaminating the environment. It means that solar panel recycling is the only solution to keep harmful materials away from natural resources.

Solar Panel Recycling Contributes to Circular Economy Sustainability

Solar panel recycling also brings economic advantages. Photovoltaic {PV} cells contain rare elements like indium and gallium. The possibility of recovering these valuable materials opens the door to their conservation. In such a way, we can keep using the limited amount of materials available to continue producing PV panels.

The International Renewable Energy Agency reports that around $15 billion could be recovered from solar panel recycling by 2050. Recycled materials can go back into new solar panel products. As a result, PV panel recycling can help lower the cost of solar equipment.

Solar Panel Recycling Companies

If you are a solar panel owner whose solar systems are approaching the end of their lifespan and start having problems generating energy, you may consider commercial recycling options available in the market.

Luckily, the solar panel recycling market can offer the services of several private enterprises that are implementing circular economy principles.

We have prepared the list of top players in the industry for you.

We Recycle SolarWe Recycle Solar specializes in direct cooperation with manufacturers and PV system installers. They aim to properly dispose of solar panel waste in the US with the help of their two functioning plants in New York and Arizona.

We Recycle Solar implements mechanical and chemical solar panel recycling methods to extract as many raw materials as possible.

EnergyBinEnergyBin offers a broader range of solar panel recycling options. The company provides solutions for refurbishing, resale, and recycling solar panels. EnergyBin facilitates exchange across the solar panel market supply chain.
Veolia Veolia is a European solar panel recycling company that collects and recycles PV panels. Due to its successful partnership with nonprofit organizations, they have opened a recycling plant equipped with robotic technology. Veolia works on extracting glass, silicon, and raw metals from solar panel systems.

How Expensive Is Solar Panel Recycling?

Solar panel recycling expenses depend on various factors, but the key points are:

  • The number of solar panels you want to recycle
  • Solar panel condition
  • The presence of valuable elements in PV panels
  • Solar panel physical removal cost

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reports that solar panel recycling price for one PV module varies between $15 and $45. Solar panel recycling remains more expensive than the costs associated with disposing of hazardous waste.

However, from an environmental standpoint, throwing PV panels away in the landfill is not the best solution for various reasons. Though solar panel recycling presents additional expenses for PV system owners, it is worth it.

Solar Panel Recycling: Future Trends and Perspectives

The energy industry is undoubtedly shifting towards green solutions. However, certain sustainable technologies raise concerns regarding the end of their life cycle. Photovoltaic solar panels are one of them. An increasing number of solar system owners face the issue of solar panel recycling once they stop performing efficiently.

Due to rising environmental concerns and government initiatives for safe solar panel disposal, the global solar panel recycling market can achieve a compound annual growth rate of around 20% during 2020-2025.

Here are some of the most prominent trends in the solar panel recycling field:

  • The higher number of PV installations and improved technology behind them will make crystalline silicon panels a dominating segment globally.
  • The aging solar installations will create new opportunities for the solar panel recycling industry.
  • The Asia-Pacific region is becoming the fastest-growing market. This is because of the largest solar energy generation share by technology hubs like Japan and China.
Solar Panel Recycling

Source: RystadEnergy

Embracing Circular Economy Principles through Solar Panel Recycling

Solar panel recycling carried out through the lenses of circular economy paves the way toward a greener and more sustainable future.

Solar panel recycling creates new opportunities for adopting circular economy principles in the solar energy market. It helps conserve and repurpose valuable resources retrieved from non-functioning solar panels and presents multiple economic benefits.

Proper disposal and recycling of end-of-life PV panels protects the environment from the negative impact of specific solar module components.

Frequently Asked Questions

What parts of solar panels can be recycled?

Most of the core components of solar panel systems are recyclable. Thus, you can give new life to glass elements, metal parts, and copper wiring. The only material that poses difficulty to solar panel recycling is silicon cells. However, some specialty solar recycling companies manage to melt them down to reclaim silicon within.

What is the lifespan of PV panels?

On average, a solar panel module’s operational lifespan is about 30 years, although some PV systems produce solar power much longer. Few solar systems require safe disposal now, but more systems will have to undergo a solar panel recycling process in the upcoming decades.

Why do solar panels degrade?

The main factors contributing to the expected degradation of solar panel systems are thermal cycling, humidity freeze, damp heat, and UV exposure.

What percentage of modules undergo solar panel recycling?

Unfortunately, the majority of end-of-life solar panels are dumped in landfills. Only around 10% of solar panel users choose to recycle their PV modules.

Can solar panels be 100% recycled?

Though technology allows us to recycle 100% of the solar panel components, we still lack specific methods to separate and retrieve raw materials that make up a solar panel.

Jed Hilton
Jed Hilton

Jed Hilton, our Founder and CEO, has over a decade of experience in the solar industry. His innovative leadership and expertise in solar technologies guide our company's vision and strategy.