As a country with one of the biggest uptakes of solar Australia should be leading the way when it comes to recycling and repurposing used PV panels. By 2050 it is estimated Australia will have produced about 900,000 tonnes of solar panel waste. Russia, by comparison, is expected to be responsible for 150,000 tonnes by then. Clearly, Australia needs to lead the way when it comes to responsible recycling and disposal.

We’ve heard the renewables naysayers happily espouse coal and coal seam gas (or nuclear power!) when they speak of rubbish tips around the world filling ­up with unwanted solar panels. The positive news is that solar panels are becoming thinner, meaning less materials are needed and less energy is required to make them, bringing the environmental cost down.

Solar modules generally have a lifespan of 20-25 years, but they can last up to 40 years – with reduced capacity – if they are a quality brand and are used correctly.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency is funding a $15 million panel recycling project and Sustainability Victoria is starting a solar panel product stewardship program. Other experts are keen to adopt the practices of countries like France, which in 2018 developed Europe’s first solar panel recycling plant. With cooperation between industry, governments and recyclers, France has developed a program that sees 90-96% of the materials salvaged from a used solar panel get recycled.

In a 2016 study on solar panel recycling the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found dedicated PV panel recycling plants make sense. It estimates that recovered materials could be worth $450 million by 2032 and exceed $15 billion by 2050. Australia alone is expected to produce $100 million worth by 2032.

Piling up

One thing is for sure, every shonky solar dealer that rorts the public with substandard panels is not only potentially pushing the price of renewables up, they are also a part of the waste problem. Reputable manufacturers and suppliers are already participating in responsible recycling and/or stewardship programs.

Installers or system owners can do a number of things when it comes time to dispose of PV modules at the end of their life:

  • Lobby politicians and ministers to put a solar panel recycling or buy-back scheme into place – and hang on to used panels until they do.
  • List the panels on internet marketplaces such as Gumtree. Someone might want to put them to use in the understanding they will likely not generate to their original capacity.
  • Give the panels away, perhaps using marketplace websites with a “free” section so interested parties can come and collect.
  • Pay for them to be disposed of as electronic waste.
  • Pay for them to be recycled. Currently, Adelaide’s Reclaim PV is the only company in Australia that recycles solar panels.
  • Upcycle them into a table or other useful item and sell at markets or give to friends as cool eco gifts.

There should be a legal and financial incentive to recycle PV panels, but there isn’t. It makes good financial and environmental sense to make the most of the material contained within them, and it shouldn’t be hard to incentivise larger businesses to change to solar with battery storage and reap the financial benefits.

People who invest in solar systems do so to save money and cut emissions linked to a grid which is mostly supplied by coal-fired generation. An industry that supports the thoughtful disposal of modules and recycling of materials for repeat use will appeal to consumers and the planet.

Diana Gosper is head of media and marketing at the Rainbow Power Company.