Are Solar Panels Recyclable?

In 2023, 3.4% of electricity generated across the United States came from solar panels with around 1.5 kWh produced daily. As more homes and businesses utilize solar energy, these numbers continue to increase yearly.

The increased adoption of solar energy also means an increase in the amount of hazardous waste produced. According to the U.S. government, some of the materials used in the creation of solar panels classifies them as hazardous waste.

But now, we are reaching the point where a large number of solar panels are about to expire. The total number of “U.S. solar panels due to retire by 2030 would cover about 3,000 American football fields.” 

If you’re a homeowner, or generator of solar panel waste, it’s important to understand what qualifies the panels as hazardous, and how to properly dispose of these products before facing penalties and fines.

The Composition and Recyclability of Solar Panels

Some pieces of solar panels may be recyclable, but it depends on the materials used if they are hazardous waste.

Solar panels comprise monocrystalline, polycrystalline, or thin film (“amorphous”) silicon. You can also expect to see a metal frame, a glass sheet, a standard 12V wire, and a bus wire. 

Where things get a bit trickier is the variety of metals that might be found in the semiconductor and solder. Solar panels would be considered hazardous waste if metals like lead and cadmium are used in high quantities.

The EPA does warn that solar panels from the same brand and model might have different levels of metals within them making it a bit more difficult to identify as hazardous waste.

The bulk of a solar panel’s weight is in the glass and metal components, which are readily recyclable.

According to the EPA, there are three steps in the ideal recycling process for solar panels:

  1. Removal of the frame and junction box;
  2. Separation of the glass and the silicon wafer through thermal, mechanical, or chemical processes; and/or
  3. Separating and purifying the silicon cells and specialty metals (e.g., silver, tin, lead, copper) through chemical and electrical techniques.

Techniques vary, but the end goal is to salvage as much material as possible. 

Challenges in Solar Panel Recycling

Despite the high potential for recycling, the solar panel recycling industry faces several challenges.

The first is that the cost of recycling a solar panel is expensive. Bloomberg cites that “estimates put the cost of recycling all the panels in a typical 100-megawatt utility system at as much as $11.2 million.” For some of the largest solar panels in America, that number is much higher.

Compared to throwing the solar panel in a landfill ($1-$5 per panel), recycling is far, far more expensive. That’s a problem considering it’s expected there will be 2 million metric tons of solar panel waste annually by 2050.

The other difficulty lies in the fact that so many different parts of a solar panel require different recycling methods.

Because of the cost and difficulty of recycling solar panels, more businesses are relying on hazardous waste disposal companies to help take them off of their hands.

Regulatory and Industry Efforts for Recycling Solar Panels

Regulatory and industry efforts are crucial to enhancing the recyclability of solar panels. 

In the United States, solar panel disposal and recycling are subject to federal and state regulations, with some states taking proactive steps to incorporate solar panels into their universal waste programs. 

When it comes to disposing of hazardous waste, the EPA says “it is the responsibility of the generator of the solar panel waste to determine if solar panels are hazardous by performing the appropriate tests.” This requires knowledge of hazardous materials.

Solar panels are often labeled hazardous waste because they meet the characteristic of toxicity: “heavy metals like lead and cadmium may leach at such concentrations that waste panels would fail the toxicity characteristic leaching procedure (TCLP), a test required under RCRA to determine if materials are hazardous.”

If the solar panels are determined to be hazardous waste, they must be transported under a manifest.

There are a lot of moving pieces and we recommend reaching out to a trusted hazardous waste disposal company if you have any questions about solar panel disposal.

HWH Environmental, Your Trusted Hazardous Waste Disposal Company

HWH Environmental has 25 years in the hazardous waste disposal business and our customer service puts us ahead of everyone else. 

When you call us, you’ll speak with a human representative ready and able to answer any questions you might have. With service across the United States, no matter where you, HWH Environmental works to help you dispose of waste quickly and efficiently.

Contact us to find out how HWH Environmental solves your hazardous waste problems.

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