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Recycling Solar Panels

Most of today's technology has a shelf life and solar panels are no exception. The expected lifespan of a Photovoltaic (PV) module is around 20-30 years following its installation, and the latest estimates predict more than two thousand tonnes of redundant units will need to be disposed of each year across Europe by 2020.

Responsibility for the full life cycle of a given product – which includes its appropriate disposal – is vital in any industry. It’s fair to say that manufacturers and suppliers in the PV sector have been aware of the potential impact of end-of-life modules since the outset and have proactively helped with and managed their suitable disposal whenever possible. 

How a PV is disposed of depends on the type of panel it is. Recycling plants are able to recover more than 80% of a crystalline silicon unit (c-Si); the recyclable constituents – junction boxes, glass, plastics, and aluminium frames – are all removed before what remains of the module is crushed. The process works in reverse when plants are handling the cadmium telluride units (CdTe). By crushing the unit first and separating out the reusable materials, up to 95% of a CdTe unit can be recycled. 

As demand in renewable energy solutions across the last decade soared, the need to dispose of large numbers of PV modules in an environmentally-friendly manner became a major issue for the industry. As a result, the PV CYCLE Association was set up to manage the processes and legal requirements of solar energy product disposal throughout Europe. Hundreds of state-of-the-art solar panel recycling and disposal points have now been established across twelve major European countries which are able to advise on and manage the removal of any number of modules.

While advances have been made in making recycling as easy as possible for both domestic and commercial units, there is still a need to make the process fully effective for all solar panel types. PV technology is in its infancy and issues remain over how best to manage the disposal of all the material and module variants. Therefore, more investment is required to ensure that solar energy is truly “green” across the product life cycle.