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The Importance of Having Solar PV Recycling Facilities in Australia

The introduction of Photovoltaics (PV) systems, electronic devices that convert the sunlight into electricity, has increased considerably during the last decade due to the global transition to net zero emissions and the module price reduction of solar PV. Australia is one country that leads this trend, especially with rooftop solar installations. According to ARENA (2021), Australia generated close to 18 GW (10%) of Australia’s electricity between 2020 to 2021 from solar PV systems.

Solar panel array on a roof

About 12 GW comes from rooftop solar PV, and 7 GW comes from large scale solar farms. This massive introduction has implied more than 362,00 rooftop solar panel installations declared as small scale renewable energy schemes (STCs) by 2021. Although this increase of installed solar capacity brings positive benefits, it also brings some negative concerns related to the projected solar panel waste for the coming years.

Solar panel waste has been an ongoing issue that has been considered one of the most significant drawbacks to the adoption of solar energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated in the report “End‐of‐Life Management of Photovoltaic Panels: Trends in PV Module Recycling Technologies, 2018”, that the cumulative global waste volumes of PV modules would reach to 8 million tonnes by 2030 and 78 million tonnes by 2050. While in Australia, more than 100,000 tonnes of PV module waste are estimated by 2035. So, what is being done to resolve this issue?

Disposed solar panels on ground

PV modules are designed to last around 20 years and their waste has been considered Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) since 2012 from the European Union. In Australia, the PV systems have been added to the federal government’s Product Stewardship Act 2011 priority product list in 2016 and their manage and disposal depends on each state and territory. For example, PV waste is considered e-waste and is banned from landfills in Victoria. Thus, if the solar panel modules are banned from landfills, where they are ending up? Are they receiving some treatment at the end of their life cycle? Are they recycled?

The problem with the end treatment of e-waste has been more visible since 2018, when China and other Asian countries banned importing waste from Australia. This restriction has also affected other countries because the majority do not have facilities for recycling waste.

Take your e-waste to a better place

The IEA declared in the report that there were just 178 PV recycling patents from 1995 to 2016 worldwide, of which 128 patents correspond for recycling of crystal silicon (c-Si) PV modules and 44 for compound module types. China is one of the countries with more patents for recycling c-Si PV modules, as Figure 1. This trend is compatible with the massive increase of solar panels in China (CN) during 2011 and even in other countries like Korea (KR) and Japan (JP).

Number of worlwide recycling patents
Figure 1: Number of recycling patents of c-Si PV module filed by year and country. EP: Europe, DE: Germany, FR: France, US: U.S., CN: China, JP: Japan, KR: Korea, PCT: patent cooperation treaty.

In Australia, six leading companies recycle solar panels and other products: Reclaim PV, PV Industries, SolaCycle, CMA Ecocycle, Ecoactiv. In general, a solar panel module can be recycled at 90%. Nevertheless, just 17% of the panel weight is recycled in Australia. But what about the remaining 83%?. Sustainability Victoria claims that these companies can recycle this small percentage that involves the solar panel’s aluminium frame and the junction box. The 83% that is not recycled in Australia include materials such as glass, silicon and polymer back sheeting.

Solar panel lifecycle

So the problem is quite complex. We have six recycling PV solar companies around Australia that currently can not recycle the solar panel at 100%. Also, we can not export them to other countries, and there is a massive projection of this waste in the coming years. Other challenges are related to the low recycle value of PV panels, the high energy requirements of the recycling processes and their collection.

However, the federal government has acknowledged this problematic scenario. As a result, they have offered a $2 million grant as part of the National Product Stewardship Investment Fund to develop and employ an industry-led product stewardship scheme for PV systems. The proposed scheme would support the whole supply chain to take responsibility for PV systems, considering the end of life processing. It would help develop an innovative and effective domestic PV recycling industry, increase resource recovery and recycling, and minimise the environmental, health and safety impacts of end-of-life PV systems in Australia.

Sun shining through tree branches

As the introduction of PV solar rooftop systems increases in Australia and worldwide, it is essential to establish strong regulations involving all participants of the entire supply chain. In addition, disposal and manufacturing techniques have to be considered in the life cycle of the PV systems to make their collection and recycling process much more manageable and sustainable. Therefore, PV recycling facilities are necessary to deal with the final treatment of PV systems and avoid millions of tonnes of materials going into landfill. As the economy, technology, society and environment evolve, the regulations also have to evolve to match these growing needs and cover their demands.


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