While a Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Panel system can save you money and reduce your overall carbon emissions, it isn’t perfect. Even when they work perfectly, the waste generated by these panels can be detrimental to the environment. If solar panel waste is not disposed of correctly, you could potentially send toxic chemicals into the earth’s ecosystem, undoing all the hard work you put in by installing panels in the first place. This blog will indicate how solar panel waste can get recycled and how NuWay Solar can help in the process.

The State of Australian Recycling

With the increase of solar popularity across Australia, the need for recycling plants has risen too. Solar panels can now be recycled within designated recycling plants across the country. There are currently 6 main companies, recycling both the panels and their products; Reclaim PV, PV Industries, SolaCycle, CMA Ecocycle and Ecoactiv. These services can come at an additional cost to bill-payers as this process is yet to be streamlined, and some companies may even require customers to actually transport the old panels to the plants themselves. However, thanks to new legislation, more options are becoming available at a rapid rate.

Which Parts of Solar Systems Can be Recycled?

Glass, aluminum frames and braces, semiconductors, crystalline silicon, electric junction boxes and plastics from solar systems can all be recycled through different processes. The aluminum frames are the most valuable and easiest part of the solar system to recycle. Parts from cables and inverters can be recycled or sold, depending on the type and age of the product. Old inverters with a transformer contain a wide variety of scrap metals that can be easily recycled, while new inverters are more often recycled as e-waste. Each solar panel has about 80% of crystalline silicon that can be recovered through a refined recycling process for reuse.

How to Dispose of Old Solar Panels?

There are a few options when it comes to disposing of your old solar panels:

  • Sell or give them away. Though they can’t be reused for large scale installations, if your solar panels are still working, they’ll be popular among handymen, travellers and home DIYers who are looking to complete smaller projects. They can also be used for camping or adding to campervans for extra power. 
  • Recycling. Currently only few Australian facilities offer PV recycling, and you’ll have to pay to do so. PV Industries, Reclaim PV and Ecoactiv offer pickup services through most areas of Australia and are currently still continuing to expand their collection abilities and increase their recycling capabilities for the future. 
  • Pay for e-waste disposal – Most states offer e-waste disposal for a cost, with the exception of Victoria which just passed laws banning this form of disposal. To do so, contact your local waste disposal facility to discuss costs and your available options. 
  • Upcycle it! Want to do something a little different with your old solar panels? Upcycle them into something useful but a little less vital. They’re great to use as fences, dog-house-roofing, chicken coops, insulation and more – whatever you can put your mind to, they’re worth a shot! 

How to Dispose of Old Inverters

Like solar panels, inverters have a few options on disposal:

  • Sell them for scrap. Some older inverters may contain useful metals that can be sold to a scrap dealer willing to take them. However, this isn’t always guaranteed, and you’ll need old inverters to do so.. 
  • Pay for e-waste disposal – just like your solar panels!
  • Recycling. You won’t get any money for it, but you won’t be out of pocket with this one either. If you can find an Australian recycler willing to take in your old inverter, you’ll be in luck. Some Australian recyclers currently accept them such as Electronic Recycling Australia and PV Industries. Or, you can check with your local recycling centre to see if they’ll accept other options. 

How to Dispose of Old Batteries

Solar batteries can be recycled across Australia through the use of waste management centres and designated recycling plants. They’re an important part to be recycled as they contain lithium-ion, which can have severely adverse effects on the atmosphere if left in landfill, due to the carbon emissions. It’s definitely not something to forget when recycling part or all of your solar panel system!

Solar Panel Recycling Process

As there are 2 main types of solar panels, there are also 2 different recycling approaches for each. Both types – silicon and thin-film based – can be recycled through specific industrial processes. Currently, silicon based panels are more common, however this doesn’t mean that there’s not great value in the materials from thin-film based solar cells. Research has been conducted on the topic of solar panel recycling and has meant numerous technologies have been developed since. Some systems now reach an astonishing 96% recycling efficiency, with the only aim to continue increasing this value in future. 

Type 1: Silicon Based

The recycling process for these solar panels starts with disassembling the product to separate the aluminum and glass parts. Almost all of the glass can be reused (95%) while all external metal parts are used for re-molding cell frames. The remaining materials? Are treated at 500 degrees celsius in a thermal processing unit to ease up the binding between the cell elements. The covering plastic evaporates, leaving the silicon cells ready for further processing. The technology ensures that not even the plastic is wasted. It is instead reused as a heat source for further thermal processing. 

Following thermal treatment, the green hardware is physically separated. 80% of these can be readily reused, while the remainder goes through a further process to refine them. Silicon particles – otherwise known as ‘wafers’ – are etched away using acid. Broken ‘wafers’ are then melted to be used again for manufacturing new silicon modules, resulting in a total of 85% recycling rate of silicon material.

Type 2: Thin-Film Based

Thin-film based panels are processed much more drastically than silicon-based. The first step? Put them in the shredder. A hammermill will then ensure that all particles are no larger than 4-5mm and can be removed. Unlike silicon-based PV panels, the remaining substance consists of both solid and liquid material. In order to separate these, a rotating screw is ulitised, to keep the solid parts rotating inside a tube, while the liquid drips down into a container. 

The liquids go through a precipitation and dewatering process, to ensure purity. The resulting substance is then put through metal processing to completely separate the different semiconductor materials. This step will depend on the actual technology used in the production of the panels; however, on average, 95% of the semiconductor material is reused. 

Solid matters can be contaminated with so-called ‘interlayer materials’ which are lighter in mass and can be removed through a vibrating surface. Finally, the material goes through a rinsing phase and pure glass is left behind, saving 90% of the glass elements for easy re-manufacturing in future. 

Benefits of Solar Panel Recycling

When you opt for recycling solar panels as they reach the end of their life, you help to contribute to Australia’s local economy and protect the environment, in a number of ways:

Economic Benefits:

  • When solar panels are put in landfill, the economic value of the solar panel materials is lost. They contain small amounts of high-valuable materials which can be recovered and reused in manufacturing for new products. 
  • Recycling increases security of future supply of raw materials, meaning that local manufacturers have affordable access to these processed materials. This lowers the need for unnecessary processing and the reliance on suppliers extracting raw materials.
  • It supports local manufacturers and economies. There are many businesses who reprocess materials for manufacturing – it helps support these businesses, giving them easy access to these materials.
  • Recycling also supports new job creation – from factory and machinery operators to truck drivers, logistics companies and waste management authorities. New jobs are created to manage each step of the solar recycling process, feeding right back into that economy.
  • Owners of solar systems, installers, energy utility companies, corporations and government departments are pushed to improve their brand and increase goodwill by supporting the recycling of solar panels. The growing popularity of solar and other renewables is testament to this improved goodwill. 

Environmental Benefits:

  • The lead, cadmium telluride, copper indium, selenide, plastics and tin commonly found in solar panels can produce toxic leachates in the soil and groundwater, posing a risk to communities, flora and fauna, if waste is managed incorrectly. Manage it correctly? You’re literally saving the world. 
  • Recycling extends the life of existing landfill sites. By recycling you’re helping existing landfill operations to last longer, before new sites need to be found/built.
  • Increases the future security of raw materials. It’s both an economic benefit through gains in efficiency, but also an environmental one. You’re able to extend the lifespan of mineral deposits, improving security of raw materials and access for future generations.

NuWay Solar and Solar Panel Recycling

NuWay Solar puts a focus on reducing solar waste and maximising their usage. That’s why NuWay Solar will always make sure to recycle or reuse parts from panels and other materials wherever possible. That way, these parts may be kept out of landfill and the environment can benefit from solar panel systems as much as possible. If you want to know about solar panel recycling or have any questions or suggestions on solar panel recycling, do drop a line or two! When it comes to the efficiency of solar panel systems, we’re always here to help. 

Conclusion

Solar panel recycling benefits consumers, the environment, and the economy. The future of solar panel recycling depends on how solar panel users approach the recycling process. Luckily, new research, new regulations, and an ever-changing, forward-thinking industry will likely see a big uptake in solar panel recycling over the next few years. Some of our most innovative minds are working to address the problem of solar panel disposal and at NuWay Solar, we’re always here to help. Explore our full range of services here or give us a call to discuss your options today.