How to Recycle Solar Panels: The Complete Guide

With the whole world now becoming more green-conscious than ever before, renewable energy sources—including solar panels—are now at the forefront of the vision of a more sustainable future. 

Yet, with more and more people now adopting solar panels to power their homes,  commercial buildings, and even factories, we now face another challenge: what should we do when the panels need to be replaced or retired?

Every single year, we produce a staggering amount of solar panel waste. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), with the average lifespan of solar panels ranging between 25-30 years, a considerable volume of the panels we use today will need to be retired in the decades to come. It is estimated that the world will produce around 78 million metric tonnes of discarded solar panels by 2050, which is the equivalent of the weight of more than 77,000 Airbus A380 airplanes and nearly 10,000 Eiffel towers or the physical amount of ~1,063,000 American football fields. 

Thus, it’s clear that we’ll need a reliable way to safely and responsibly recycle solar panels. 

In this guide, we will learn all you need to know about how to recycle solar panels, and we’ll cover:

  • The environmental impact of solar panel disposal
  • Key challenges in recycling solar panels
  • What components make up a solar panel, and how they should be recycled
  • An in-depth look at the solar panel recycling process and a step-by-step guide on how to recycle a solar panel correctly
  • Legal considerations of solar panel recycling you should know

And more.

Without further ado, let us begin this complete guide to solar panel recycling right away. 

Why Recycle Solar Panels

Above, we have discussed why recycling solar panels is becoming increasingly vital and will continue to be even more important in the years to come. When solar panel disposal is not managed responsibly, it can cause significant environmental consequences, including:

  1. Toxic leachate: Many solar panels contain toxic materials, especially lead and cadmium. If you dispose of the solar panels in an irresponsible way (i.e., in a landfill or via incineration), they can pollute the soil, air, or water, which can hurt the environment and pose serious health risks. 
  2. Resource depletion: Solar panels, as an advanced technology, are manufactured using valuable and finite resources, including aluminum, silicon, and glass. Not recycling these materials means we are not recovering these limited resources, which can otherwise be used for manufacturing new solar panels or other electronics.
  3. Carbon footprint: Appropriate recycling of solar panels can help offset the carbon emissions produced in manufacturing new panels. By reusing the recycled components and materials, we can reduce the energy required to extract and process the resources when manufacturing new panels. 

Benefits of Solar Panel Recycling

Recycling solar panels has a number of benefits in environmental, financial, and social aspects, including: 

Environmental benefits

  • Reduces greenhouse gas emissions: By recycling solar panels, we can reduce the need to extract and process new raw materials to produce new solar panels. 
  • Reduces land pollution: Recycling solar panels would reduce the number of old solar panels that are disposed of in landfills. Landfills are a major source of land pollution, especially methane, so recycling can effectively help reduce land pollution.
  • Protects water resources: Solar panel recycling reduces the number of hazardous materials that leach into the groundwater and soil as a result of irresponsible disposal.
  • Conserves valuable resources: Recycling solar panels helps to conserve valuable natural resources that are otherwise used to make new solar panels, like glass, silicon, aluminum, etc. Recycling allows us to recover these materials and reuse them when manufacturing new panels. 

Economic benefits

  • Job creation: Due to the increasing demands for solar panel recycling, the industry now creates a growing number of jobs, for example, in solar panel collection, dismantling, transportation, and processing. 
  • Boosts the economy: The solar panel recycling industry generates revenue and creates tax revenue, contributing to the overall economy.
  • Reduces costs: Recycling solar panels allows the increased availability of recycled materials, lowering the costs of new solar panels. 

Social benefits

  • Promotes sustainable practices: Recycling solar panels reduces the negative environmental impact of disposing of old solar panels and manufacturing new solar panels, allowing companies to achieve more sustainable practices.
  • Equity and access: Recycling solar panels allows us to extend the life cycle of these panels, which can potentially result in increasing access to more affordable solar energy for underserved communities. This can ultimately lead to a lower energy cost for lower-income households. 
  • Innovation and research opportunities: Recycling solar panels drives innovation and encourages the development of more efficient solar recycling methods, as well as the creation of more eco-friendly solar panels.

Of course, this is non-exhaustive, and there are many more benefits you can get from recycling solar panels in addition to the ones listed above, when you know how to recycle old solar panels correctly. What’s important is to remember that recycling solar panels will make the whole solar energy industry more sustainable and accessible in the long term. 

Challenges and Barriers to Solar Panel Recycling

As we can see, the importance and benefits of recycling solar panels are very clear with the benefits listed above, and will be even more critical in the coming years.

Yet, recycling solar panels is no walk in the park and can be (very) challenging due to several factors:

  • Diverse materials: Solar panels are highly advanced and are manufactured using various materials like aluminum, steel, glass, silicon, and even rare metals and elements. Each of them may require different recycling methods, and improper recycling may result in losing these valuable components. 
  • Hazardous components: Many solar panel products contain toxic materials such as lead and cadmium. Improper recycling may result in serious health risks and environmental contamination. 
  • Lack of awareness: A significant challenge to consider is the fact that many businesses and consumers are still unaware of the importance, financial opportunities, and environmental benefits of recycling solar panels. This can lead to difficulty in securing buy-ins and commitments when attempting to recycle solar panels. 
  • Technological limitations: Recycling solar panels can be a technical challenge. Efficient separation of various components included in the solar panels, like glass, aluminum frames, silicon wafers, etc., can be challenging and require advanced technology. Not to mention, the recycling process may require specialized knowledge and expertise. 
  • High initial cost: The economics of recycling solar panels can be a significant challenge. It can be expensive, and in some cases, it may not be financially feasible. In general, the cost of recycling solar panels can be high for small quantities, and large-scale recycling is more viable. On the other hand, gathering enough panels to justify the cost can pose another challenge.

When we explore the actual solar panel recycling process below, we will also consider these key challenges and the potential solutions. 

Solar Panel Recycling Process: The Complete Guide

Understanding Solar Panel Components

Before we can start discussing the actual solar panel recycling process, we have to first understand what the solar panels are made of and how to properly recycle each component. 

Below are the key components of a solar panel:

  • Solar cells: The most important components of a solar panel are the photovoltaic cells made of semiconductor materials (i.e., silicon). These cells are responsible for absorbing and then converting sunlight into electricity through a photovoltaic effect. 
  • Encapsulation: The solar cells are typically protected in materials like tempered glass or EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate), which protects the cells from the elements and also amplifies the amount of sunlight that reaches and is absorbed by the solar cells. 
  • Backsheet: The backsheet of the solar panel is typically made of weather-resistant materials like TPT or Tedlar. The main function of the backsheet is to protect the photovoltaic cells from moisture and other environmental hazards. 
  • Frame: The solar panel’s frame surrounds the encapsulation, typically made from aluminum. The frame provides structural support while also protecting the photovoltaic cells from physical impact. 
  • Connector and junction box: The junction box contains the electrical connections of the collar panels. For reliability purposes, the junction box typically contains bypass diodes to prevent issues caused by shading or malfunctioning cells. 

Materials Used in Solar Panels

The different components of the solar panels are typically made of the following materials, each with its specific purpose:

  • Silicon: Silicon is one of the most common materials used in solar panels, especially in photovoltaic cells. Silicon is relatively inexpensive, abundant in nature, and has an exceptional ability to convert sunlight into electricity.
  • Glass: Typically tempered glass, which is strong and durable. It is mainly used to make the panel’s encapsulation to protect the photovoltaic cells. It’s critical that the glass is made in such a way that can allow sunlight to pass through with minimal reflection. 
  • Aluminum: Aluminum is typically used to make the solar panel’s frame (stainless steel is also a common material.) Aluminum is commonly used in solar panel frames due to its strength, lightweight, and corrosion resistance.
  • Copper: Copper is often used in wiring and electrical connections within the solar panel.
  • Polymers: EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate), as well as other types of polymers, are commonly used in solar panel encapsulation.

Overview of The Solar Panel Recycling Process

In recycling solar panels, there are two key objectives in mind: safe extraction of valuable materials and responsible handling of hazardous materials.

To successfully achieve these two objectives in a consistent manner, it is important to follow a meticulous process that involves multiple stages:

  1. Collection and transportation of old solar panels

The first step in the process of recycling solar panels is to collect the old solar panels and transport them to a recycling facility. This involves several sub-steps: 

  1. Identification: Identifying the solar panels that are reaching or have reached the end of their lifespans. Solar panels typically have a lifespan of 25-30 years, but there are a few signs that you can observe, including:
    • Physical damage like chips or cracks
    • Reduced power output than it used to
    • Visible discoloration (i.e., yellowing)
  2. Deciding destination: You can send the solar panels you’ve identified to various viable destinations, including specialist recycling centers, your panel’s manufacturers, designated collection points, etc.
  3. Transportation: The solar panels are carefully transported to the destination facility (or facilities.) It’s critical to make sure the solar panels are securely packaged to make sure the panels aren’t damaged during transport.      
2.    Dismantling and separation of components

Once the solar panels have been received, the recycler will then start the process of dismantling the solar panels and separating the components. This can be done using a variety of methods, but the most effective ones are by using machines or chemicals to break down the solar panels into their components.

While the actual dismantling process may vary depending on the make and model of the panel, here are the typical steps involved:

  • Frame and glass removal: The tempered glass encapsulation and frame (aluminum or other materials) are removed from the solar panel. These materials are valuable and can be reused, so they are separated and stored safely.
  • Cell extraction: The photovoltaic cells typically contain valuable materials, especially silicon, so they are carefully extracted. The solar cells are typically the most valuable component of the whole solar panel.
  • Polymer dissolving: The polymer materials such as EVA are processed to recover any reusable materials. Typically the encapsulation and polymer are dissolved in a chemical solvent so the valuable materials can be extracted.

3. Recycling and disposal

Once the solar panel has been properly dismantled, the different components are recycled properly using different methods, for example: 

  1. Solar cells: Solar cells are typically recycled by melting down the cells and extracting the melted silicon (or other valuable materials). This process is called thermal recycling. 
  2. Glass: The glass from solar panels is typically collected as-is to be reused in the production of new glass products.
  3. Backsheet: The solar panel’s backsheet is typically recycled using a chemical solvent. The backsheet is dissolved in the solvent, and the valuable materials are extracted.

Another consideration during this step is the disposal of hazardous materials. If the solar panels contain cadmium, lead, or other hazardous substances, they must be disposed of in compliance with local environmental regulations. 

  1. Quality control and safety measures

Throughout the recycling process, a variety of quality control protocols and safety measures are implemented to ensure a safe and efficient recycling process.

  • Quality control: Quality control measures should be put in place throughout the whole recycling process to ensure proper disposal of hazardous substances and that the recovered materials meet the required standards for reuse.
  • Compliance: It’s critical to make sure the whole recycling process is executed while meeting the relevant standards and in accordance with local and international regulations. Compliance with environmental regulations will also ensure that the recycling process has little to no negative impact on the environment. 
  • Safety protocols: Strict safety protocols and measures are put in place to ensure proper handling of hazardous materials. This is to prevent health risks for the workers and minimize the impact on the environment. 

How To Recycle Your Solar Panels: Step-by-Step Guide

Now that we’ve learned about the recycling process for solar panels, in this section, we will take you through a practical step-by-step of how to recycle your panels. 

Step 1: Locating a recycling center or service

The first step you should take in recycling your solar panels is to find a qualified recycling service or center that accepts them. Here are your options:

  • Research local options: Start by researching the potential centers or recycling services in your area, and try to find options that specialize in solar panels. Sometimes a quick Google search can do the job here.
  • Contact local authorities: If you can’t find local recycling centers on your own or are unsure about your options, then try to get in touch with local waste management authorities or environmental agencies. They may be able to refer you to a recycling center or service.
  • Check your manufacturer programs: Your solar panel’s manufacturer may offer recycling or take-back programs. Check your solar panel’s manual or contact your manufacturers to check whether they offer such programs.

Once you’ve identified your option, try to contact the recycling center or service in advance. Confirm that they do accept solar panels and check whether they have any specific requirements.

Solar Recycling™️ is a leading expert in the field of used solar panel recycling, offering a wide variety of services, including:

If you are looking for trustworthy solar panel recycling services, consider contacting Solar Recycling™️ right away. Their specialization in responsible recycling of solar panels can help you maximize your old panels’ value while ensuring environmental sustainability.

Step 2: Preparing solar panels for recycling

Once you have found and confirmed a recycling service that accepts your solar panels, the next step you should take is to prepare your panels for recycling.

This typically involves the following steps:

  1. Assessment: First, assess your solar panel’s condition. If the panel is still in good condition, consider selling, repurposing, or refurbishing it rather than recycling it. 
  2. Documentation: Keep documentation of the panel’s make and model, installation date, condition, and any other relevant information. Take photos of the panel’s serial number, any defects, and any other important details. 
  3. Disconnecting panels: If your panel is still installed, make sure to disconnect the solar panels from the electrical system completely and safely. You may need professional help to ensure electrical safety. 
  4. Removal and cleaning: Remove the solar panels from the mounting system, and clean the panels carefully.
  5. Packaging: Securely package the solar panels and prepare them for transport. 

Step 3: The actual recycling process

Once your panels have been received by the recycling center or service, they will typically undergo the following processes:

  • Inspection: The panels are identified, weighed, and inspected. For tracking purposes, the information about the panels should be carefully recorded.     
  • Testing: The solar panels are thoroughly tested to assess whether they are functioning as intended, especially the electrical output performance. A thorough assessment can help determine whether the panel should be sold, repurposed, refurbished, or recycled to maximize its ROI. 
  • Dismantling: Panels are carefully dismantled with two considerations; extracting the valuable materials to maximize value and careful handling of hazardous substances. Recovered valuable components like encapsulation, frame, and photovoltaic cells are separated and secured for further processing.   
  • Material recovery: Various processes are conducted to secure valuable materials from the components (glass, silicon, aluminum, etc.)
  • Hazardous material handling: If the panels contain cadmium, lead, or other types of hazardous materials, these substances are carefully disposed of while following strict environmental regulations.         

Conclusion

In this blog post, we have discussed the importance and benefits of recycling old solar panels. 

While solar energy has a lot of benefits as a renewable and clean energy source, the manufacturing and especially disposal of solar panels can have a negative impact on human health and the environment. 

Recycling solar panels that are nearing their end-of-life cycle is a pressing concern and will grow to be even more important in the coming years, given the massive amount of waste the old solar panels will generate in the years and decades in the future. 

By recycling solar panels, we can reduce this waste, conserve raw materials that will otherwise be used to make new solar panels and contribute to a more sustainable environment. 

If you are a solar panel owner, it’s also your turn to be a part of this change. Every solar panel recycled is a step towards a greener and cleaner world, so you should take action today:

  • Explore recycling centers or services in your area, or you can try contacting reputable specialists like Solar Recycling™️.
  • Educate yourself, your employees, and other relevant parties about the importance and benefits of recycling solar panels
  • Communicate and lobby for sustainable policies and practices in your community (and beyond)
  • Choosing high-quality and eco-friendly solar panels when investing in new panels