Solar Panel Recycling vs Reuse? How Disposal Works (Problems Explained)

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Solar Panels | March 15, 2024

Man holding a used solar panel looks at two garbage cans and wonders how does solar panel recycling work, how long do solar panels last and how does solar panel disposal, and solar panel waste and landfill options work?

Solar energy systems for homes are a great way to disconnect from the grid and generate your own ‘clean’ electricity, but when the panels have finished their usefulness, many people are at a loss to find solar panel recycling centers that can dispose of them (or have them refitted for reuse) properly.

The problem with solar panel disposal is that the recycling process is energy intensive, and they cannot be simply thrown away because of the dangerous metals that can leech into the groundwater.

In fact, depending on the type of solar panel, it can actually be listed as hazardous waste.

This means that is can be a civil violation (depending on jurisdiction) to simply place used solar panels in the garbage.

But what are the options?

This complete guide to solar panel recycling explains how disposal works, outlines the issues some homeowners may have as well as ways to work around those problems so that the panels can be properly disposed.

How Long Do Solar Panels Last? (Solar Panels Disposal)

The lifespan of a solar panel is between 25 to 30 years.

From the moment they are installed on a rooftop, in a backyard, or even in a solar farm, the efficiency output rating begins to decrease minutely every year.

Indeed, one of the reasons that nuclear power has such a low carbon footprint compared to solar is that the manufacturing and disposal of the panels takes an environmental toll.

Rows and rows of solar panels in a massive field.

(Image: Harisankar8)

As the panels degrade, their production diminishes, requiring replacements.

The new panels get installed and connected to the new or replacement battery system, and the old solar panels (in the past) get properly disposed of in landfills, landfills that are expected to be overflowing by 2030 with 8 million metric tons of photovoltaic cells that are not considered worth the effort of recycling.

The parts that are salvageable are not worth more than $3 for a standard solar panel – and it will cost between $12 – $25 to extract those parts in a recycling facility. Sadly, dumping them in a landfill costs a mere $1 – $3.

Cheap it may be, but this method of disposing of solar panels is unsustainable, only building a problem to be tackled tomorrow while increasing the carbon footprint solar panels are not supposed to have at the end of their useful lifespan.

Some suggest that governmental agencies and private enterprises invest, research, and explore cheaper alternatives to improve solar panel recycling.7

Are Solar Panels Recyclable? Solar Panel Landfills

Most solar products are recyclable, but it depends on the type and brand. Basically, it has to be ‘worth’ it to recycle solar panels.

Typically the disposal of solar panels involves separating the junction box and frame and removing all the aluminum and copper components along with the glass.

What’s left is shredded and crushed and finally incinerated.

Some parts are ground down into a substance called cullet that can be mixed into building material, but the demand is not very large so it is not a sector that has a large potential for growth.

There are two major problems with the current method of disposal, apart from trying to keep up with the mounting mountain of discarded panels, that is. The first relates to environmental concerns of heavy metals such as lead and copper leaching into the soil from decaying solar modules, and possibly entering into the groundwater supply.

This contamination is made worse the longer the solar panels sit idle in all types of weather situations while waiting to be incinerated, making them anything but environmentally friendly.

This brings us to the second problem.

Graphic that shows the materials used to make a solar panel.

(Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency9)

The components that can be removed are expensive and time-consuming to separate, not very profitable even when they are extracted due to the manual labor involved, and the machinery required is very expensive.

All that may be about to change as industry leaders are researching profitable methods of solar panel recycling.2

Is There a Solar Panel Recycling Company?

The difficulties associated with solar panel recycling relate to the complete integration of the solar panel parts that form the entire system. Silver strips of metal are embedded into the very surface of the cells as the semi-conductive material to convert light into electricity.

This crisscrossing pattern of silver wiring is sealed onto the silicon cells by a plastic EVA protective barrier. An aluminum frame encases the cells and is sealed with plastic on the back and glass on the front to ensure that the panel is weatherproof.

The construction and installation of solar panels are quoted together for the customer’s final purchase price.

Deconstructing the entire system into its basic components at the end of its life is not as straightforward.

Separating wiring, external junction boxes, and frames is relatively easy and inexpensive. More integrated components like copper and silver are valuable but are difficult to extract and realistically are present in only small trace amounts.

Removing them involves either an acidic solution or an even more costly method of separation called sequence etching. This is a complex process that actually diffuses the metals so that they can be removed easier.

Harvesting the silicon layers, which are wafer-thin, requires thermal and chemical treatment methods that are time-consuming. The purification process to ensure that the silicon is not contaminated is difficult and expensive, but crucial so that it can be reused in some format in refurbished panels.

The thin-film manufacturing process includes the metals gallium and indium that are fused into the cells.5 Although crucial to the function of these types of solar panels of super-slim solar panels, they are extremely difficult to extricate successfully during the recycling process.

To separate them involves crushing, soaking in a special solution and then a stripping agent, and then even more phases are required to recover just small amounts of these substances per solar panel.

All of these processes are energy intensive.

Solar Panel Recycling Process

Other methods of breaking down the modules start with:

  • Using solvents to separate the plastic from the surface of the cells
  • Or simply burning the plastic off in a 500 °C energy-intensive oven
  • An infrared heater and a vibrating blade can be used for glass separation instead of the oven, but the equipment is expensive
  • Electrowinning is an electrochemical process combined with nitric acid to separate silver from copper

Carbon footprint recycling of solar panels is not sustainable under current technological methods. They have to be improved upon or solar energy is going to have just as detrimental a carbon footprint as fossil fuels.

Graphic that shows the recycling process of solar panel.

(Image: Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy10)

If the recycling methods can be refined, made easier, and become commercially viable then when the question of why is solar energy bad arises, the answer will be that it used to be but it’s better now.

Used Solar Panels for Sale

An obvious alternative to solar panel recycling is selling used solar panels on eBay, Craigslist, Amazon, or Facebook. Although solar panel efficiency over time will have decreased, they still absorb sufficient amounts of irradiation from the sun to produce enough electricity for various purposes.

Refurbished models are given a second lease of life as they are brought back to code with improved operating efficiencies, and can be reused in charging stations and mobile homes without any regulations to bypass.

Discerning homeowners are taking advantage of this growing side industry and are snapping up cheap bargains to supplement their energy needs and reduce their energy bills.

Consequently, fewer disused solar panels end up on the scrap heap in landfills.

How To Find Solar Panel Recycling Near Me

Despite the solar panel industry becoming more accessible and affordable to residential homeowners over the last few decades, solar panel recycling is still in its infancy, requiring an effective infrastructure with standardized regulations. It is estimated that the potential of recycling solar panels is estimated to be worth more than $1.8 bn worldwide by 2031, up from $78.1 m in 2021.

The United States is not a world leader in this sector, but with federal and state incentives it is possible that it could be rather than just resorting to solar panels incinerated down to finer particles to reduce the problems in landfills.7

There are companies in your area now that can help with your recycling needs and are worth contacting rather than heading down to the local solar panel landfill to add another level to the pile.

Here are 12 companies in various states that are currently recycling solar panels and exploring new technologies to improve solar panel recycling.

  1. Cascade Eco Minerals LLC – Springfield, MO
  2. Cleanlites Recycling – Cincinnati, OH
  3. Echo Environmental – Carrollton, TX
  4. Exotech – Pompano Beach, FL
  5. First Solar, Inc. – Tempe, Arizona
  6. Green Lights Recycling Inc. – Blaine, MN
  7. INTERCO Trading, INC. Madison, IL
  8. Mitsubishi Electric US, Inc. – Cypress, CA
  9. Recycle1234 – Union City, CA
  10. Solar recycling – Santa Ana, CA
  11. SunPower – San Jose CA
  12. We Recycle Solar – Phoenix, AZ

With more energy companies and entrepreneurs entering this sector of solar power, the solar panel recycling companies’ stock market is becoming more and more interesting.

Contact your original supplier or search online to find a recycling company in your area, someone that will not only take away your unwanted solar panels but pay you in the process.

Solar Energy News: The Best Company To Recycle Scrap PV Cell

The labor-intensive nature of solar panel recycling is a prohibitive feature to fully commercializing the industry, and making it worth the effort of going through the expensive process of extracting all useful silicon and metallic components.

Two companies, SOLARCYCLE and Silicon Ranch Corporation are striving to change the landscape.

Man holding used photovoltaic cells for recycling.

(Image: Spot Us11)

Forming a partnership in late 2022, they are investing heavily and strategically into advancing recycling technology to prevent this clean energy solar source from becoming the clean-up problem of the future. Together they are developing unique techniques that are capable of economically recovering up to 95% of the integrated parts that will be viable for reintroduction into new and refurbished photovoltaics.6

These two companies recognize that up to 95% of solar panels can be repurposed, recaptured, and reused.

And they have also paid attention to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) where the industry for the recovery of solar panel components could be worth well in excess of $15 billion by 2050.

Silicon Ranch is primarily a solar panel provider with over 145 facilities spread across 15 states, supplying renewable energies to households, businesses, and large-scale commercial solar farms.

SOLARCYCLE is dedicated to eliminating the carbon footprint of solar panels by improving the recapture capability of the components within every solar panel. Allying its corporation with Silicon Ranch is allowing them the opportunity to increase the efficiency of its state-of-the-art facility.

Their mission is to:

  • Completely dismantle the solar panel’s structure
  • Recycle broken panels
  • Repair and refurbish older panels
  • Extract 95% of reusable parts using their proprietary technology

The commercial success of their collaboration is based on innovative recycling technologies that enable them to separate the wafer-thin silicon slices within the cells without damaging them, extract the silver and copper wiring cheaply while maintaining their purity, and disassemble the plastics encasing the cells and modules cleanly.

Conventional recovering methods consist of essentially using a hammer to separate the parts rather than a scalpel, grinding, crushing, and stripping, and then salvaging whatever was not too broken or could be melted down.

By applying chemical, electrical, and thermal techniques, the process has proven to be more efficient to enable silicon, copper, silver, aluminum, tin, lead, and glass to be repurposed. To be profitable, however, this recycling process needs to be done in large quantities. But it will be worth the effort.

Once these parts have been cleared for reuse they can then be reintroduced back into the solar panel supply chain at a reduced price, benefiting everyone.

The advantage for Silicon Ranch Corporation is that these virtually as-new parts can be incorporated into new solar panels which can then be sold either at a cheaper price to consumers to save them money, or sold at the same price as their competitors to garner greater profits for the company.

This creates a circular industry where solar panels are produced, installed, recycled, and installed again in new locations.

A couple of compelling points to recognize are that this process will eliminate the dumping of solar panels into landfills and will not increase the carbon footprint of photovoltaic cells as they are discarded.

Solar Panel Recycling California

Years before the Inflation Reduction Act, California was keen to adopt solar power as a renewable energy source and then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger,1 initiated a program in 2006 to install solar panels onto 1 million roofs across the state.

That figure was reached in 2019.

With that initiative completed, California became the state with the most rooftop solar panels in the country, with about 15% of the entire state’s electricity generated by this clean energy source.

But now it’s time to launch another initiative, that of what to do with the solar panels that are nearing or have passed their end-of-life due date.

A big house full of solar panels on its roof.

(Image: Markus Winkler12)

The looming problem of how to environmentally dispose of decommissioned solar panels, or commercially repurpose them, has got regulators and solar panel manufacturers searching for a solution before the hammer drops and cues start forming at landfills. A solar panel roof replacement program that subsidizes waste management companies is helping to temper their costs of recycling.

Across many states, there are legislative rules being enacted so that manufacturers are responsible for factoring in end-of-life recycling costs in the original purchase price to the customer.

The Photovoltaic Module Stewardship and Takeback Program will come into effect in 2025 and is a concerted strategy to require producers to prepare financially for the disposal or regeneration of their products in the future.

By enacting this policy, policymakers are hoping that it will incentivize manufacturers to research new methods in which solar panels can be still produced to a high standard, but that solar panel recycling will be easier and cheaper.

Just as with being one of the first states to adopt solar power on a grand scale, no doubt California will also be at the forefront in keeping the industry clean and carbon emission free.

How To Reduce Solar Panels Waste

The carbon footprint of solar panels is initially generated at the very beginning of the production process. After about 7 to 10 years that footprint is offset by the capture and conversion of sunlight into clean electricity.

Manufacturers need to be encouraged to adopt the framework of the panels and to enable them to be disassembled into individual components easily when they become less efficient. Consigning them to landfills is a colossal waste, and there has to be a more cost-effective method of repurposing photovoltaic systems and the materials when they are due for retirement.3

Understanding solar panel recycling is a key component in the lifecycle of this green technology.

Frequently Asked Questions About Solar Panel Recycling

Is Silicone Recyclable?

Some may ask, is silicone recyclable? Yes, silicon can be successfully recycled from solar panels using chemicals and electrical techniques.

Are Larger Solar Panels Worth More for Resale?

Large solar panels do not necessarily have significantly more salvageable parts than smaller panels and don’t influence resale prices, whether for scrap, recycling, or reuse.

What Percentage of Solar Panels Are Recycled in the United States?

Only about 10% of the thousands of solar panels discarded each year are recycled. This is a woefully minuscule amount as by 2050, 80 million solar panels could become decommissioned.

Do Solar Panels Have a Carbon Footprint?

Yes, solar panels tend to generate their carbon footprint upfront at the material procurement, manufacturing, and transporting stages.

Will Solar Panels Become More Efficient?

The technologies behind solar energy and photovoltaic systems are constantly improving, and the potential for a solar-powered future is very bright.4

Read More About Solar Panel Recycling


References

1California Energy Commission. (2023). Inflation Reduction Act Residential Energy Rebate Programs in California. California Energy Commission. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from <https://www.energy.ca.gov/programs-and-topics/programs/inflation-reduction-act-residential-energy-rebate-programs-california>

2Hurdle, J. (2023, February 28). As Millions of Solar Panels Age Out, Recyclers Hope to Cash In. YaleEnviromnent360. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from <https://e360.yale.edu/features/solar-energy-panels-recycling>

3National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2023). What It Takes To Realize a Circular Economy for Solar Photovoltaic System Materials. NREL Transforming Energy. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from <https://www.nrel.gov/news/program/2021/what-it-takes-to-realize-a-circular-economy-for-solar-photovoltaic-system-materials.html>

4O’Neil, C., & Dreves, H. (2022, February 7). Building a Solar-Powered Future. NREL Transforming Energy. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from <https://www.nrel.gov/news/program/2022/building-a-solar-powered-future.html>

5U.S. Department of Energy. (2016, May 11). Thin-Film Solar Cell Manufacturing. Office of ENERGY EFFICIENCY & RENEWABLE ENERGY. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/articles/thin-film-solar-cell-manufacturing>

6U.S. Department of Energy. (2023). End-of-Life Management for Solar Photovoltaics. Office of ENERGY EFFICIENCY & RENEWABLE ENERGY. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/end-life-management-solar-photovoltaics>

7U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2023, March 22). Solar Panel Recycling. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from <https://www.epa.gov/hw/solar-panel-recycling>

8Photo by Harisankar. Unsplash. From <https://e360.yale.edu/features/solar-energy-panels-recycling>

9Images by: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Retrieved from <https://www.epa.gov/system/files/images/2023-03/NatureEnergy_figure_2.png>

10Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Retrieved from <https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/end-life-management-solar-photovoltaics>

11Solar World – Solar Recycling Photo by Spot Us / Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 2.0). Cropped, Resized and Changed Format. From Flickr <https://www.flickr.com/photos/29792566@N08/4875664321>

12Markus Winkler. Unsplash. From <https://unsplash.com/photos/VX0ZEZSwqnY>