How to Dispose of Solar Panels: A Complete Green Guide

How to Dispose of Solar Panels: A Complete Green Guide

Producing electricity with solar panels has gained popularity in recent years because the panels have become lighter and more efficient. But, with the increase in solar panel use has come a new realization, the world is heading towards a new crisis when it comes to the safe disposal of solar cells.

So, how do you dispose of solar panels? The best way to dispose of solar panels is to safely recycle them using a reputable dealer. There are two distinct types of solar panels, and each undergoes similar yet different recycling methods; silicon and thin-film solar panels.

This article will concentrate on the disposal of the two types of solar panels by recycling with a look at the pros and cons of doing so, plus the consequences to humanity if we do not.

How To Dispose of Solar Panels

Solar Panels have a lifespan of twenty-five years and eventually will need to be replaced. However, how do homeowners dispose of them once they have outlived their usefulness? The answer is they need to be recycled.

Looking for a place to recycle solar panels, however, can be difficult, depending on where you live in the world. In the United States, there are only a few businesses specializing in the recycling of solar panels, so most panels that are submitted for recycling are being warehoused until a solution is found for the U.S.

There is an exception as Washington state became the first to pass a law mandating that the manufacturers of solar panels create and utilize recycling for their products.

However, in Europe, it is an entirely different story. Europe has mandated recycling for all solar panels and has established businesses that specialize in the breakdown and reuse of the materials that make up solar panels.

What Not To Do With Broken or Old Solar Panels

Currently, in the United States, only two states have any regulations regarding the disposal of solar panels. This is a sobering fact as solar panels that once were used to generate electricity can, in fact, end up in landfills where they become a poisonous danger to the world.

Once solar panels have passed their usefulness, the worst thing a homeowner or business owner can do is to relegate them to a landfill. Unfortunately, this is the fate of a significant percentage of solar panels.

Even worse, some businesses who claim to recycle solar panels themselves actually try to mitigate the inflated cost of sorting the materials by shipping them to poor countries where children and the poor are forced to pick through the waste. In the process, these people are exposed to carcinogens and other unhealthy chemicals.

Bottom line? Do not dispose of solar panels by either throwing them into a landfill or by allowing a business that has not been well-vetted to take them.

How is Silicon Solar Panels Recycled?

Silicon solar panels contain a number of materials that are highly recyclable. Each material equals a percentage of the panel including:

  • 76% glass
  • 10% plastic
  • 8% aluminum
  • 1% metal

There are also copper components that have become popular material due to its price when sold on the open market and 5% silicon, which cannot be recycled.

Because of the prohibitive cost of separating the components, there are currently only two options for recycling solar panels. Solar panels can be recycled at general-purpose glass recycling facilities or at one of the new recycling facilities that are popping up that specialize in recycling solar panel components.

After recycling silicon solar panels 100% of the metal, 85% of the silicon modules are given new lives in other products or to make other solar panels. (Amazon Link)

How are Thin Film Solar Panels Recycled

Like those made from silicon, thin-film solar panels are recyclable. The percentage of materials that can be reused from thin-film solar panels is as follows:

  • 89% glass
  • 6% aluminum
  • 4% plastic
  • 1% metal

You may have noticed that there are fewer materials from thin-film solar panels that are recycled, but by nature, thin-film solar panels have less to them as they are smaller and lighter.

Basically, the different components are separated via mechanical and chemical means, and each gathered together to be remade into new products.

Why Should Solar Panels Be Recycled?

The use of solar panels more than doubled between 2012 and 2015 and is going to triple by 2020. The reason for this significant increase in this decade is because of government subsidies and mandated recycling.

However, solar panels contain toxic metals like lead that can damage the human nervous system and cadmium that can cause cancer. Both metals are known to leach out of solar panels that have been thrown into landfills and into drinking water.

So, proper disposal of solar panels is vital to the health of the planet and the human beings who live upon it. 

Recycling Solar Panels for Home Use

Recycling solar panels that have been used on the roofs of homes are perhaps where the most waste comes from in regard to disposing of solar panels after they have become obsolete. Homeowners generally do not have the funds to worry about where their old and worn out panels go, so a lot of solar panels go to landfills.

However, homeowners can expect to pay nothing to have their solar panels removed by a reputable recycling company as these companies resell the components they harvest from old solar panels.

In the future, it is hoped that there will be monetary incentives for homeowners to recycle their solar panels, but at least they are not charged for their removal.

Recycling Solar Panels for Business Use

Businesses, especially in the manufacturing realm, are beginning to find the cost savings of using solar panels in their plants and office spaces. Especially in areas where the cost of electricity from traditional sources, the appeal of solar power is growing.

Yet, with the increase in the use of solar panels comes the huge problem of knowing what to do with them when they are done being useful. Of course, recycling is the answer, but businesses are finding it costly to search for and hire recycling businesses that handle the toxic waste of solar panels.

The answer to getting more businesses to recycle their solar panels is to offer monetary incentives in the form of tax incentives and monetary rewards for recycling.

Disposing of Solar Panels Through Charity

Orphanages and other public facilities in third world countries are desperately in need of reliable and sustainable power from solar power.  

In Africa, 600 million people live without access to electricity. Instead, homes are lit at night using dangerous, dirty, and expensive kerosene lamps that cause a myriad of health problems for children and house fires.

One way to dispose of solar panels that are old but still useful is to give them to a charity such as Let There Be Light for distribution to people living in Africa and other impoverished countries.

More solar power from solar panels means people around the world will live in much less dangerous conditions and have better well-being. (Source: Let There Be Light)

Is the Use of Solar Panels as Green as People Think?

In 2016, Japan’s announced the amount of solar panel waste in that country would increase, but they had no plans in place to know what to do with them once they had expired. The same can be said for many other countries. (Source: EnvironmentalProgress.org)

While using a solar panel to create energy for a home or business frees the home or business owner from the shackles of electricity created by the use of fossil fuels, they are by no means as green as people think.

What do you do with old solar panels? Once they have outlived their usefulness, where do their owners take them for disposal?

These questions and more are harder to answer than they sound. For a person to go completely off the grid and be green, the solar panel technology they are using must be efficient and green as well, and solar panels simply are not.     

What the United States Needs to Make Disposal of Solar Panels Safe

It is obvious by what this article has covered so far that proper disposal of solar panels is vital to the future health of American citizens. To make the recycling of solar panels more feasible and  attractive, the U.S. needs five things to happen:

  • Federal Incentives to dispose of solar panels properly
  • Laws to force proper disposal of solar panels
  • Solar panels manufactured with greener and safer materials
  • An increase in proper recycling businesses
  • The formation of a regulatory organization

Federal Incentives to Dispose of Solar Panels Properly

While some states offer tax incentives to homeowners and businesses to recycle their solar panels, the federal government of the United States is lagging behind in the amount they pay out as incentives. Europe already offers enormous incentives to its citizens that make recycling both attractive and practical.

Laws to Force Proper Disposal of Solar Panels

Solar panels are currently listed in most states in the U.S. as common waste, and it is lawful to send them to landfills. However, this is changing as two states have now relegated solar panels to the list of hazardous materials that are unlawful to dispose of in that fashion.

California and Washington have passed laws forbidding the disposal of solar panels, but that doesn’t mean with unscrupulous motives will not pay to have their waste hauled to another region where it is not illegal and where they are placed in landfills.

Solar Panels Manufactured with Greener and Safer Materials

Current silicon-based solar panels that make up 80% of the global market rely on materials that post a threat to humanity. To make solar panels greener, manufacturers have begun experimenting with changing their product’s components to include ones that are non-toxic.

Even better, many manufacturers of solar panels are resolving the disposal problem by making the components of their product recyclable themselves independent of the recyclability of other parts of the solar panel. This means they are focusing on each component one at a time to increase its ability to be recycled, and eventually, the entire panel will be fully recyclable. 

An Increase in the Number of Proper Recycling Businesses

Currently, in the United States, recycling businesses, when there are any, that handle solar panels are those that handle and recycle glass. As can be imagined, these businesses are incapable of protecting against environmental contamination from the different hazardous components in solar panel recycling.

The answer would be for each state to designate and license recycling plants that deal with hazardous waste, including solar panels. The Europeans currently use this system and are having increasingly fewer problems with their landfills filling up with solar panel waste.

The Formation of a Regulatory Organization

One possible solution that is not currently politically correct is the formation of a regulatory organization to oversee the disposal of solar panels. The United States already has such an organization to watch over nuclear waste, yet as deadly a problem as nuclear waste is becoming, there is far less of it than solar panel waste.

A regulatory organization could make rules and offer licenses and incentives on a federal level that allows for the success of stopping solar panels from ending up in landfills and finding better and greener solutions.

Recycling Solar Panels In Europe

Europe offers the best model of the recycling of solar panels through the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive). The WEEE directive, along with the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS Directive) became law in February 2003.

The WEEE Directive set collection, recovery, and recycling targets for all kinds of electrical goods, including solar panels. It also sets restrictions on European manufacturers of solar panels for not only creating solar panels but also on what happens to them when they have outlived their usefulness.

To be sure, the Europeans have moved far ahead in dealing with hazardous waste like solar panels and are moving ahead with plans to handle the enormous influx of the use and disposal of them in the future.  

The Cost of the Wrongful Disposal of Solar Panels

In November 2018, Japan’s Environmental Ministry warned that the number of solar panels that will become waste every year would rise from 10k to 800k by 2040. The problem? Japan has no plans in place to safely dispose of the panels people will be throwing away as they wear out.

The problem is larger than just the sheer number of panels that will be filling up our landfills. Solar panels create three-hundred times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants, a startling revelation.

Not only is the world faced with toxic waste entering our water supply from the wrongful disposal of solar panels, but countries like China, India, and Ghana with communities that live near waste dumps where electronics are salvaged for their valuable copper wiring burn the devices to get to the wiring. Burning releases fumes from the plastics resulting in smoke that contains toxic fumes known to be carcinogens and to cause birth defects when breathed in.

(Source: Environmental Progress)

The Pros and Cons of Recycling Solar Panels

The greatest pro for recycling solar panels is the positive effect it has on the environment. However, many solar panels are ending up in landfills even if the state the homeowner is living in has laws protecting this from happening. This is because the waste ends up in landfills in other states. This poses an environmental hazard. 

Another pro for recycling solar panels is that some states offer incentives in the form of tax breaks to recycle them. While this amount is still small relative to the costs involved in installing solar power, it is a beginning.

The main con to recycling solar panels is there are so few recycling plants specializing or dealing with solar panels. Most disposal plants are not set up to handle solar panels and the problems that go along with recycling them.

Solar panels are manufactured using hazardous materials like sulfuric acid and phosphine gas that make them dangerous and difficult to recycle. In fact, solar panels create around 300 times more waste than nuclear power plants in terms of the electricity they generate.

How Innovation is Currently Making the Matter Worse

The technology of solar panels is a burgeoning industry still in its infancy. Yes, great strides have been made in the past several years in making solar panels function better, but there are still many problems that must be rectified before solar power can be considered completely green energy.

In the process of creating better and cheaper solar panels, there have been and continue to be problems with the materials they are manufactured from and their efficiency. To fix these problems, innovators have experimented with materials that are highly toxic in an effort to gain a handhold on the market and sell more solar panels than their competitors.

Normally competition is good for a product, but when dealing with solar panels, it is creating hazardous waste that is ending up in the landfills of the United States and other countries where these heavy metals and poisonous components may take centuries to biodegrade.

The result of the innovation and competition in making solar panels has meant that the market has been flooded by cheap solar panels that only last five or so years, further complicating the equation. These cheaper alternatives are not friendly to the environment and can never be considered green energy.

What the United States is Doing to Try and Help

In 2015, the state of California passed Senate Bill 489 that designated solar panels as hazardous materials, but the declaration was focused at new and future solar panels, and so older panels were still going to either landfills, other state’s landfills, or stacked up in California warehouses awaiting a better alternative.

One huge problem facing recycling plants in California who wished to switch to dealing with solar panel waste is that the cost of recycling the materials was more than the money that could be made in doing so.

To end the problems, California opened a solar recycling facility in Arizona called Recycle PV of Grass Valley. 

Recycle PV partnered with PV Cycle, a European not for profit solar recycling organization to help bring their type of services to the U.S. The process shared by the European recycling organization separates the aluminum frame, removes the junction box, and attached wires then runs the glass panel through an oven. The other materials are crushed to recover 98% of materials that can be reused.

Recycle PV also offered help in designing the repurposing and reusing of solar panels. Those panels that can be repaired are sent to charitable organizations for disbursement.

Better More Efficient Recycling of Solar Panels is Coming

This article has thus far concentrated on the negatives of solar energy using solar panels, but there is a definite advantage to using them to take care of our energy needs. One advantage is that sunshine doesn’t anything, and another is that using solar energy is good for the environment. 

While the recycling of solar panels is still inefficient and unregulated in many countries, it is still the greenest and safest alternative to fossil and nuclear fuel that mankind has produced today.

There are many groups of entrepreneurs who are working diligently to create new ways to manage the waste created by spent solar panels, and one should not be afraid to explore using solar panels for energy. In the near future, the solar panel problem will be defeated, and mankind will have a cheap, safe, and environmentally safe alternative to light our businesses and homes.

The Ultimate Green Solar Panel

Currently, the manufacture of the components of solar panels and the panels themselves require fossil fuels in the manufacturing process. Research is being done to examine greener ways to produce solar panels so that in the future, even the making of a solar panel will be green.

For now, all homeowners and businesspersons can do is to use the products available today. By doing so,  they can significantly reduce their carbon footprint to help not just the planet, but also give those living upon it healthier and longer lives.

The ultimate objective of using solar panels is to utilize the sun to create totally green energy, and that goal is just around the corner.

The Cost of Using Solar Panels for Energy

The cost of installing a solar panel system isn’t for the faint of heart of the low-income homeowner. The average homeowner will pay $20,000 for the installation of solar panels on a 1,500 square foot home. Larger homes or businesses cost even more and can range up into the $30-40k range after tax credits.

The excessive cost one incurs when installing a solar panel system isn’t due to the prohibitive cost of solar panels, which are relatively cheap, it is the cost of labor that makes using solar panels for energy prohibitive to most homeowners and small businesses.

When choosing a solar panel system, one must take into consideration the wattage that is needed. The more watts a home or business requires, the higher the cost.

To be sure, there are tax benefits that help hold down the cost of solar panels and their installation. The federal government of the United States now offers the investment tax credit (ITC) that allows those who choose to go green to claim credits and receive a savings of nearly $9,000, and this tax credit extends to both residential and commercial systems. 

If You Want to Go Green, Use Solar Energy

Recycling solar energy via solar panels is a fantastic way to help reduce waste in landfills and still fulfill the energy needs of any business or home. There are pros and cons to using solar panel technology, but there are some distinct advantages, including:

  • The reduction of electric bills
  • Using a renewable energy source
  • Many different applications for solar power
  • Technology is moving along to making better, greener solar panels
  • Solar panels require minimal maintenance costs
  • The cost of solar panels is coming down

Having read this article, it is clear that using solar energy via solar panels is not only greener but better for anyone who disperses the funds to put it in place.

Solar Power is Here to Stay

Solar energy via the use of solar panels is not going to go anywhere anytime soon. In fact, the manufacture of solar panels is projected to more than triple in the next ten years. This means that more people are thinking green and are wanting to reduce their dependence on fuels that are not renewable.

By recycling old solar panels or giving them to charity when they still have some life left in them, one can become greener and save money in the long run.

As technology advances, going green will soon become the norm instead of the exotic solution to global warming.


Title image by Matt Gibson

spgenie

Hi I'm Harris the spgenie! As an engineer, I found myself doing tons of research about solar power, the types of panels, how to store the energy and the best way to finance the project. I thought I'd start this blog to share my findings. I hope you find this useful.

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