Recycling Solar Panels

Five of the largest commercialised types of solar cells fall into two categories: either 2nd generation thin-film solar cells or 1st generation (x-Si). The latter is the most sold and the most common. 1st generation solar cells are made using Silicon and are either poly-crystalline silicon (p-Si) or mono-crystalline silicon (c-Si).

Solar panels have a life-span of approximately 25 years and when their useful life is over, they become hazardous waste. However, given their long life-span, the waste wasn’t considered a problem until recently when, the first batch of solar panels is now being retired -particularly in mainland China. 

But, what happens with all the material? Chinese scholars agree that there is a lack of dedicated end-of-life (EOL) solar panel recycling schemes in China and worldwide. More importantly, the majority also agree there is a lack of Solar PV waste management policies.

In July 2012, the European Union officially included PV components into the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipments (WEEE) directive. Apart from properly dealing with waste management of newly launched PV, EOL panels, or damaged PV systems, all manufacturers of PV who supply to the European market must pay a recycling fee. 

This policy is an example of how PV manufacturers like First Solar, SolarWorld Global and PV Cycle are now recycling some Solar Panel components. However, there are only a handful of processing and recycling facilities around the world -and EOL solar PV management is a newly emerging field. For instance, there is no effective collection and disposal system for the increasing stream of waste solar panels and no specific solar-panel recycling plants. 

Composition of Solar Panels and their recyclable components

Solar Panels are composed of four main parts: the solar panel, the system controller, the battery and the inverter. Any crystalline silicon panel have 7 recyclable components:

  1. Glass (55%)
  2. Plastic (17%)
  3. Frame (Al 13%)
  4. Adhesive sealant (10%)
  5. Silicon chips (3%)
  6. Others (~2%)