Product stewardship scheme to unlock Australian solar panel recycling economy

Researchers from the University of South Australia recommend a comprehensive product stewardship scheme to optimise the country’s solar panel recycling industry.

Australia has positioned itself as one of the global leaders in solar energy in recent years, reaping the benefits of the nation’s warm climate to decarbonise the energy sector.

However, the country will need to sustainably dispose of 80 million solar panels in the coming years when they reach their end of life – a significant challenge that must be overcome to ensure this renewable energy source remains environmentally friendly.

Professor Peter Majewski of the University of South Australia explained: “Australia has one of the highest uptakes of solar panels in the world, which is outstanding, but little thought has been given to the significant volume of panels ending up in landfill 20 years down the track when they need to be replaced.”

To improve solar panel recycling, the team’s study, ‘Product stewardship considerations for solar photovoltaic panels,’ outlines how incentivising producers to design solar panels that can be easily recycled could help establish a lucrative second-hand economy for solar cells.

Majewski added: “There are some simple recycling steps that can be taken to reduce the waste volume, including removing the panels’ frames, glass covers and solar connectors before they are disposed of.

“Landfill bans are already in place in Victoria, following the lead of some European countries, encouraging existing installers to start thinking about recyclable materials when making the panels.”

Poor solar panel recycling can cause severe health and environmental impacts

From 2035, there is estimated to be 100,000 tonnes of solar panel waste that will need to be recycled or disposed of sustainably in Australia.

If not managed correctly, solar panel waste can cause an array of serious impacts on the environment and human health.

Solar panels comprise weatherproof panels that, if burned, release harmful fluorite gas that can irritate and burn the eyes, cause headaches, nausea, and in serious cases, pulmonary oedema.

What does the product stewardship scheme propose?

The product stewardship scheme outlines that solar panel landfill bans could be an effective way to boost solar panel recycling. However, legislation will be essential to guarantee that the waste is not just diverted to regions with more relaxed regulations.

The scheme also recommends the use of serial numbers on solar panels to track their history, monitor their recycling use, and ensure they are disposed of sustainably.

The researchers explained that adopting legislation similar to what some European electric vehicle markets implement to ensure sustainability could be instrumental.

Majewski said: “Several European nations have legislation in place for electric car manufacturers to ensure they are using materials that allow 85% of the car to be recycled at the end of their life. Something similar could be legislated for solar panels.

© shutterstock/zstock

Australia could reap significant economic benefits from recycling

Silicon is one of the principal materials used to manufacture solar panels. It is the second most abundant material on the planet after oxygen and is also used as a conductor in computer chips.

Silicon demand is forecasted to rise in the coming years, meaning Australia can capitalise on this huge market by championing solar panel recycling.

“The demand for silicon is huge, so it’s important it is recycled to reduce its environmental footprint. About three billion solar panels are installed worldwide, containing about 1.8 million tons of high-grade silicon, the current value of which is $7.2bn. Considering this, solar panel recycling has the potential to be commercially viable,” commented Majewski.

The Professor also believes that reusing solar panels that are still functioning could help establish a second-hand economy and that a levy on solar panels is required to help finance an end-of-life scheme.

He concluded: “Solar panel reuse offers a variety of social and environmental benefits, but consumers will need guarantees that second-hand panels will work properly and provide a minimum capacity in watts. Any end-of-life legislation will need to address existing and new panels and support the creation of a second-hand economy.”

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