Solar panels are mainly made of reusable materials. Components such as glass and certain metals (which make up 85 per cent of panels) are reprocessed, as are polymers and electronic components. However, solar panel recycling is much more difficult than simple disassembly -- material recycling is often more expensive to produce than new panels.
However, there are many reasons to optimize solar panel processing: falling prices, reducing the environmental impact of production emissions, and preventing toxic e-waste from entering landfills.
Why is solar panel processing so important
Solar panels have a life span of 30 years. As the use of solar panels increases, so does the waste from broken or discarded panels. Waste from solar panels could account for 10% of the world's e-waste by 2050. Today, about 90 percent of solar panels end up in landfills, where they end up releasing toxic chemicals into the land and water supply.
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How solar panel recycling works
Glass, plastic and metal -- the main components of solar panels -- can be recycled separately. But in an operational solar panel, all these materials are combined into a single product. The problem is separating the components for efficient processing, while also solving the silicon problem, which requires a more specialized processing process.
However, innovations aimed at optimizing the process continue. VEOLIA, a French firm, for example, uses robots to separate silicon solar panel parts for recycling and is already capable of processing 1,800 tonnes of solar material. The company plans to increase this capacity to 4,000 tonnes by 2021.
Solar panel processing status
In the United States, when solar panel manufacturers recycle used solar panels, most solar panels in the United States end up in landfills because of the time-consuming plate processing process and economic benefits.
In 2012, the European Union issued the Electronic and Electrical Equipment Waste Directive (WEEE), which requires the recycling of electronic waste such as solar cells to protect human health and the environment. Because of this law, Europe is the only continent with a solar panel processing center.
Other countries, including Australia, India, Japan and South Korea, are currently developing solar panel recycling instructions.
How to reuse solar panels
Used solar panels are an emerging market. When solar panels are returned to the manufacturer under warranty due to defects, they are usually refurbished and resold. They were labeled to indicate that they were not new and therefore unreliable, and were 70 percent cheaper to resell than new.