A solar panel converts the sun’s radiant energy into electricity using cells, called photovoltaic (PV) modules, and semiconductors. Each Photo voltaic panel has a life expectancy of 20-30 years, as stated by the leading Industry Association, and most solar products have not reached the end of their first life cycle. During their entire life cycle, from the production to their final disposal, considerable quantities of non-renewable resources generate pollution and waste with a high environmental impact. As PV panels are being removed from residential and commercial installations, recycling and proper end-of-life management becomes an increasingly imminent problem. The large amounts of mostly-recyclable waste imposes the need to plan effective processes for removal, dismantling, disposal and/or reuse.
“The longevity of these panels, the way they’re put together and how they make them make it inherently difficult to de-manufacture,” says Mark Robards, director of special projects for ECS Refining, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the U.S.
In July 2017, Washington became the first state to pass a solar stewardship bill (ESSB 5939), requiring manufacturers selling solar products into the state to have end-of-life recycling programs for their own products. ESSB 5939 finds that a convenient, safe, and environmentally sound system for the
recycling of PV modules, minimization of hazardous waste, and recovery of commercially valuable materials must be established. The responsibility for this system must be shared among all stakeholders, with manufacturers financing the take-back and recycling system.
Countries in the EU being early adopters of this technology have already seen panels coming in for recycling and have taken steps to adapt their rules and regulations to include Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) principles (Mehta, 2017). The EU introduced its very first EPR legislation for waste electrical and electronic (WEEE) management in 2002 and was revised in 2012 to include PV as a separate category, in anticipation of this looming issue of end-of-life management.
Senate Bill 489 (Monning) authorizes DTSC to adopt regulations to designate used/spent solar panels that are currently hazardous wastes as universal waste. Until the new regulations are adopted, solar panels that are hazardous waste must be managed as hazardous wastes and not as universal wastes, which limits who can collect PV panels and process panels as well as ensures they are expensive to manage.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is currently engaged in developing collection and recycling processes for the solar industry, and are committed to guiding both state and federal regulations that support safe and effective collection and recycling models. CPSC partners with local governments and recyclers to pilot PV recycling programs. Contact CPSC if you are interested in learning more or getting involved with solar panel recycling in California.
Ask your local HHW if they can accept solar panels!
Articles & Press
- What will we do with all those solar panels when their useful life is over- Ensia, 4/11/18
- Its time to plan for solar panel recycling in the United States– Solar Panel World, 4/2/18
- Policies and Measures for Sustainable Management of Solar Panel End-of-Life in Italy – Melandrino et al, Sustainability, 3/23/17
- Extended Producer Responsibility for Solar Photovoltaic Panels: Practices and Challenges in End-of-Life management in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland – International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics, 6/17