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78 million tons of waste coming from solar panels in 2050. How to recycle them



As the world focuses on the transition to a more sustainable energy future, it is also important to consider the less “green” aspects of renewable technologies. One of these is the problem of solar panel disposal, because this type of structure is not eternal; it decays in power and is destined to be replaced. Not to mention accidents and weather events that can further shorten its life. What should I do?

The dilemma of end-of-life solar panels

Solar panels, while designed to last for decades, are not eternal. At the end of their lifecycle, two questions arise: what to do with these panels and how to do it safely and sustainably, especially by recovering the strategic raw materials that make them up and how to prevent them from spilling into the environment

A growing problem

The problem is set to grow rapidly in the coming years. It is estimated that by 2050, the world will have accumulated 78 million tons of solar panel waste. If not managed properly, this waste could contaminate the environment with hazardous substances such as lead and cadmium.

Recycling challenges

Several laws and regulations exist for recycling solar panels, but the actual recycling rate is still low. In Europe, for example, only about 10 percent of decommissioned solar panels are recycled. The remaining 90% currently end up in landfills, all despite the fact that there is WEEE legislation in the EU that would require their disassembly and recycling. In the US, there is an EPA regulation, and that, in turn, comes from an international directive on the subject

The recycling challenges are many:

  • Panel complexity: solar panels are composed of different materials, some of which are difficult to separate and recycle.
  • High costs: recycling can be more expensive than landfilling.
  • Lack of infrastructure: in many areas of the world, there is still no adequate infrastructure for recycling solar panels.

Possible solutions

There are several possible solutions to address the problem of solar panel waste:

  • Improve recycling technologies: the development of new technologies could make recycling more efficient and cost-effective. Currently, there are three routes for recycling: prolonging the route with heat treatments of the crystals, partially recovering efficiency; mechanical recycling, practically crushing the particles and separating their individual components, including silica sand; and chemical recycling, dividing the individual materials through the use of chemical reactions.
  • Promote producer responsibility: solar panel manufacturers could be required to recycle their products at the end of life, although this creates problems when panel manufacturers are not national or are entities that disappear after sale.
  • Raising awareness: it is important to educate consumers about the importance of proper disposal of solar panels.

Toward a more sustainable future

The renewable energy industry has the potential to contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable future. However, it is also important to address the environmental challenges associated with this technology. Only with a concerted effort by governments, companies, and citizens will it be possible to find effective solutions for the disposal of solar panels at the end of their lives.

Beyond solar panels

Recycling is a necessity because, without the dismantling of old systems, space does not come to free up for new systems with superior efficiencies and technologies, and this applies not only to solar panels but also to wind turbines.

An obstacle to recycling comes from the volatility of the prices of steel and raw materials included in the panels, which makes the economic planning of the recycling activity complex.

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