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Recycling Solar Panels: Now Low Cost and Environmentally Friendly

Recycling Solar Panels: Now Low Cost and Environmentally Friendly
October 17, 2022 Aaron Williams

Solar panel production is, rightly or wrongly, criticised partly for not being entirely environmentally friendly. The source of this criticism is primarily due to the reliance on precious metals required to produce solar panels. Extracting precious metals from the Earth can be a carbon-intensive process. Even before a solar panel begins absorbing energy from the Sun there is a negative carbon effect in the creation of the solar panel itself; however, overall, the carbon footprint of the average solar panel system is between 14 and 73 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh far less than that of burning oil at 742g of CO2e per kWh [1]

solar panel recycling

Figure 1: Solar panels. [15]

There are also concerns due to the finite nature of the metals used to create solar panels. Significant growth in the supply of these metals, in particular Tellurium, is required to meet the demands of an ever-growing environmental revolution that most of us desire[2,3]

Furthermore, solar panels have a lifespan of approximately 20 to 30 years. Therefore, there is a negative outcome at the end of a solar panel lifecycle if not recycled in an economically viable and environmentally friendly way. Solar panels left in landfill can be toxic to the environment. For example, materials such as lead can leak out as the panels degrade[4,5]. Although the European Union requires solar panels to be recycled, this is not seen as a requirement across the world.

“Currently, China and the U.S. are the largest users of solar panels, but only Europe has taken measures to hold manufacturers responsible for their waste. The European Union requires solar companies to collect and recycle their panels, with the cost of recycling built into the selling price.” [6] – Solar Panel Waste: The Dark Side of Clean Energy by Conor Prendergast

High yield, low cost, environmentally friendly process to recycle silicon solar panels

One part of the solar puzzle may be solved. Although solar panels can be recycled, the process currently tends to be costly and difficult [7]. Solar panel recycling may have turned a corner, though, as Australian researchers from the University of New South Wales have developed a process that is potentially low-cost and environmentally friendly. The research paper is called ‘High yield, low cost, environmentally friendly process to recycle silicon solar panels: Technical, economic and environmental feasibility assessment’ [8].

The process involves “module defaming, laminate shredding, and material concentration using electrostatic separation”. An output of two sets of materials is provided: one containing valuable materials of silver, copper, aluminium, and silicon; and the other containing glass, silicon, and polymers. These materials account for 2 to 3% of the initial weight of the solar panel, which can then be sent on for further refinement. 

The study compares the technique to an alternative recycling technique known as FRELP (Full Recovery End-of-Life Photovoltaic) [9] and to simply sending the panels to a landfill. Whilst FRELP is better for the environment, both the process proposed by the study and FRELP have a net positive environmental impact. 

“This is something someone can pick up elsewhere, it doesn’t use any chemicals, it doesn’t emit any pollution or hazardous pollution. It produces dust from crushing the panels, but you have dust collectors there,” [10] – Dr Pablo Dias.

The key aspect that makes this study shine, though, is the potential economic benefits when compared to FRELP when:

  • “At lower waste volumes (smaller than 4 kt/y), because of the smaller equipment capital cost.
  • If there is no market for the recovered glass, which is currently the case in many locations.
  • The end-processing industry is located afar, since only the valuable mixture would require shipping.”


One of the key constraints holding back solar panel recycling may be on the way to being solved. One million tonnes of solar panel waste are expected within the United States of America by 2030 [11]; therefore, it will be vital for innovations in solar panel recycling to progress in the future. This is especially important given that there is a finite supply of materials available to produce solar panels. Regulation, subsidies, and political willpower will be needed instead of recent regressive and shocking proposals of those posed by the new UK government [12] led by new Prime Minister Lizz Truss. However, technological advancements such as solar panel efficiency [13], cost [14], and recycling remain significant factors driving solar development worldwide. 

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[1] https://www.theecoexperts.co.uk/solar-panels/how-eco-friendly-are-they#link-whats-the-environmental-cost-of-producing-solar-panels.
[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/metals-and-mining/our-insights/the-raw-materials-challenge-how-the-metals-and-mining-sector-will-be-at-the-core-of-enabling-the-energy-transition.
[3] https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/a25576543/renewable-limits-materials-dutch-ministry-infrastructure/.
[4] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342671383_Metal_dissolution_from_end-of-life_solar_photovoltaics_in_real_landfill_leachate_versus_synthetic_solutions_One-year_study.
[5] https://www.wired.com/story/solar-panels-are-starting-to-die-leaving-behind-toxic-trash/.
[6] https://www.discovermagazine.com/environment/solar-panel-waste-the-dark-side-of-clean-energy.
[7] https://news.energysage.com/recycling-solar-panels/.
[8] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1364032122007821?dgcid=author High yield, low cost, environmentally friendly process to recycle silicon solar panels: Technical, economic and environmental feasibility assessment Pablo R.Dias, Lucas Schmidt, Nathan L.Chang Marina Monteiro Lunardi, Rong Deng, Blair Trigger, Lucas Bonan Gomes, Renate Egan Hugo Veit.
[9] https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/life/publicWebsite/index.cfm?fuseaction=search.dspPage&n_proj_id=4554.
[10] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/16/australian-research-finds-cost-effective-way-to-recycle-solar-panels.
[11] https://www.epa.gov/hw/end-life-solar-panels-regulations-and-management#:~:text=By%202030%2C%20the%20United%20States,2018%20was%20292.4%20million%20tons.
[12] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/10/ministers-hope-to-ban-solar-projects-from-most-english-farms
[13] https://www.itworldcanada.com/post/researchers-break-through-30-per-cent-solar-cell-barrier
[14] https://arstechnica.com/science/2022/09/us-installs-record-solar-capacity-as-prices-keep-falling/
[15] Andres Siimon (2021) on Unsplash.com. Last accessed on 17th October 2022. Available at: https://unsplash.com/photos/fCv4k5aAZf4


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