There’s no denying that solar power is the future of renewable energy, but solar panels still have a finite life. Once they’ve served their purpose and are no longer producing energy, what should you do with them? How do you properly dispose of old solar panels?
You may be surprised to hear that solar panels are considered hazardous waste. They’re full of materials that must be disposed of properly, and according to the law. But solar panels also contain plenty of recyclable materials. The trick is knowing how to properly dispose of old solar panels, including recycling as much of the panel as possible.
How long do solar panels last?
Solar panels can generate power for longer than you might expect. While the lifespan of the average electronic appliance lasts around ten years, solar panels can work well and continue to produce electricity for up to three times as long.
If they’re properly maintained and kept clean and protected from such things as vegetation overgrowth and pigeons, you have every reason to believe that they will continue to work for at least 30 years.
Solar panels first began to appear for commercial and personal use in the early 1980s, and some of those panels continue to be in use and work well to this day. It means that if you invest in solar panels now, they’ll be generating power for many years to come.
But of course, all good things must come to an end eventually, and it’s true that solar panels won’t last forever. With more and more people investing in them today, we need to be prepared to manage the disposal of these now dead panels.
Is it difficult to recycle solar panels?
A solar panel is made up of plenty of different parts, and some of these parts have uses for other things long after the panel has stopped working. Other parts are not so useful and should be disposed of.
It’s not that it’s necessarily difficult to recycle solar panels, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap, either. A solar panel is made up of several layers of parts, and each layer must be dismantled, and the recyclable parts removed.
Because solar panels are a relatively new invention and have been in circulation for a comparatively short period of time, it’s fair to suggest that up until now, there haven’t been any great systems in place for dealing with the recycling of old panels.
It means that should someone take the time to know exactly how they’re made, and what parts can be recycled and what parts can’t, then before long they’d be able to quickly dismantle a panel and efficiently remove materials that can be put to better use.
What percentage of solar panels are recyclable?
It’s good to know that as much as 90% of a solar panel is considered recyclable. That makes sense, particularly when you know that as much as 75% of the panel is made from glass, which is not just recyclable, but is a material that has been recycled efficiently for many years.
Along with other materials that are not only recyclable but are in short supply, it makes good sense to strip old panels down to their bare bones and take out whatever can be recycled.
Unless there’s another option.
When should a solar panel not be recycled?
We might think that the two options for getting rid of panels that no longer work are either recycling them, or throwing them away, or at least throwing away the parts that can’t be used again.
But there’s another step that can be taken first, even before recycling, and that’s repurposing.
For single panels that sit on the roof of a house or car and power small appliances, there’s not too much that can be done if the panel no longer works.
However, for those people who own large solar parks made up of tens or even hundreds of panels, there’s plenty that can be done with a panel that isn’t working as well as it used to.
By removing old panels and giving them a thorough check, there’s every chance that they can be used to power smaller items, once they’ve left behind their super-efficient days. While solar panels may work for thirty years or more, they don’t work at 100% efficiency for that long, so they don’t always do well in solar parks for several decades.
Think of older panels as being in their retirement years: they may not be as sharp as they used to be, but they’re not ready to stop working just yet. Instead, they should be given lighter duties than they were used to.
Most manufacturers estimate a degradation of power of about half a percent per year.
Repurposed solar panels can be great for powering electric cars, bikes, charging cell phones, or keeping useful items going if you decide to head off and go camping for a few days. Just because old panels aren’t connected to the main electricity grid anymore doesn’t mean they cease to be useful altogether.
But once you’ve exhausted all efforts for reusing the panel, and there’s simply nothing else for it but to retire the panel completely, you now must decide what parts to recycle, and what can be disposed of.
Can solar panels go into landfill?
Solar panels can go into landfill in the same way that anything you throw away at the local dump can go into a landfill. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is currently conducting research that has so far revealed there to be no danger to humans from the depositing of old solar panels in landfills.
But just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.
After all, the idea of using solar energy is to be more conscious of the environment and to use greener ways of creating electricity to cause as little damage to the environment as possible. By throwing away old solar panels into landfill without recycling them defeats the object of this aim.
Currently, there is no way to recycle 100% of a solar panel, so there will be some parts (around 10% of the construction) that will inevitably end up in landfill. But that means there’s plenty that doesn’t have to and should be recycled whenever possible.
How are solar panels recycled?
It can be argued that there are four ways to recycle a solar panel, but one of these ways is to reuse or repurpose the panel, which has already been discussed. If this is not an option, then depending on the material, the panel will be either mechanically, thermally, or chemically recycled.
Think of a solar panel as a huge piece of cake, made up of many layers. Each layer contains a different material which performs a different task in the grand scheme of creating electricity from the sun’s rays and UV light.
Surrounding the panel on the top and the bottom are sheets of glass and polymers, and these are reinforced by a frame of aluminum. Between these glass sheets are cells made from crystalline silicon, and these cells are what capture the UV rays that hit the panel.
The glass must be separated from the silicon cells, and this can be done mechanically or chemically. It’s most likely that the glass will be removed mechanically. But then a chemical process will be undertaken to separate the silicon in the cells from other products in the construction of the panel, which also includes the use of such metals as copper, lead, tin, and even silver.
Wires made from copper and other materials come out of the back of the panel and run to the battery, which converts the created energy into electricity that is either stored or immediately used. Any recyclable materials in the wires will also be removed when the wires are stripped down.
Removing the plastic parts from the wires and other smaller areas of the panel is done by thermal processing, during which time the plastic evaporates from the high heat.
What parts of solar panels can be recycled?
Up to 90% of a solar panel can be recycled when the process is conducted correctly. The recyclable materials are usually divided into five different sections:
In all-electric appliances, there’s some use of metals. This is because metal conducts electricity better than any other material.
There are a whole host of metals inside solar panels, and these include aluminum, copper, gallium, iron, lead, nickel, silver, tin, and zinc. Some panels have even more metal inside the workings, depending on what the construction company decided to use.
All the metals in a solar panel are potentially recyclable, and it’s with chemical processing that they’re separated out.
There’s plenty of silicon in a panel, but it still only makes up around 5% of the total recyclable material.
This too takes a chemical reaction, placing the panels in a mixture of chemicals and even acid to remove the materials desired. It’s a painstaking process that should only be done by those who know how to properly dispose of old solar panels, specifically concerning more intricate materials.
While it’s still a metal, there’s so much aluminum in a solar panel that it comprises almost 10% of recycled panel materials.
It’s not difficult to remove, and can be done mechanically, without using thermal or chemical processing. Most of the aluminum is used to frame the panel, holding the glass together.
The great thing about plastics is that they can be used repeatedly. There’s a chance that the plastic made to create a panel was already recycled plastic, and once the panel’s life cycle has come to an end, it can be removed and used once more.
Glass makes up over 75% of the total recyclable material from a solar panel. It’s easy to remove, and easy to recycle.
Do solar panels produce waste?
If they’re not disposed of properly, then yes, solar panels can produce waste. We’re currently at a time where the world has not had to dispose of too many panels yet, because they’ve not been around that long. But within the next few years, there will be a lot of solar panels that require disposal.
The main worry when panels end up in landfills is the leaching of toxic metals into the soil. Lead in particular is a toxic metal when not treated properly, and if local water supplies become contaminated with the waste, then there is a threat to human and animal welfare.
Solar panels are made primarily of glass, which means they break easily. This is another concern regarding their disposal, because the quicker something breaks, the more quickly the materials inside will end up in the soil of the landfill they end up in.
Want to learn more about the toxic waste old solar panels make? Read our Article Here.
Where can you recycle your old solar panels?
You should only ever send your old solar panels to be recycled by a company who knows how to do so.
Regular recycling companies could easily remove the aluminum and the glass. But as for the silicon and the metals, that takes more expertise and can’t be done by a regular recycling plant that would usually deal with things like glass bottles and cans.
The good news is that because there’s been a growing demand for solar panels, there will be more money invested in the recycling of old panels that are no longer productive.
Another recycling option to remember are the manufacturers, as a lot of country’s are starting to require the manufacturers to build the infrastructure to safely recycle their own appliances.
Another option for your old solar panels is to re-use them. Read our article on 13 ways to re-use solar panels. Here.
Always recycle old solar panels!
We should all do more to recycle, and this is especially true of a product like a solar panel, which is full of materials that can be put to better use than sitting in landfill and causing harm to the environment.
Currently, the USA only recycles around 10% of solar panels, and that number should be much higher if it is to offset the benefit of reducing greenhouse emissions.
Remember that you should always think to repurpose or reuse a panel first before you think about having it dismantled for its parts. But if there’s nothing else to be done and the panel must be disposed of, then be sure to do so with a recycling plant that knows just how to properly dispose of old solar panels.