According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, by 2050, about 78 million metric tons of solar panels would have stopped functioning and about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste will be generated annually. The data suggests that immediate action be taken to develop a global plan for recycling.
What is important to notice is that the solar panels have lead in them, which means that after recycling the panels, the lead shouldn't be left to sit in landfills. To tackle this problem, producers in the European Union make sure that their solar panels are recycled properly. A recycling plan is currently being developed in Japan, India, and Australia, while the U.S doesn't have a plan yet.
The U.S. has a cost problem as recycling in the country is more expensive than dumping. To be exact, it costs less than $1 to dump a panel in a landfill and $12-$25 to recycle it. To recover the aluminum, copper, and glass components of the panel, it takes $3. However, the more valuable materials like silver and silicon will require a bespoke solution to be recovered.
According to an American company dedicated to PV Recycling, Recycle PV Solar, a heat process and a ball mill process could recover more than 90% of the components of the panel, including the low-purity silver and silicon. The company has also recently reviewed some new equipment from its European partners that could do over 95% recovering while separating the recovered materials in a much better way.
In order to adopt the technique and for the solar recycling industry to grow sustainably, supportive policies and regulations will be required. Before the U.S. could excel the EU recycling model, the lawmakers in the country will have to realize the existence and magnitude of the problem first.
While renewables are a great solution for producing clean energy, a gigantic pile of old solar panels adding to the landfill is not a great idea. Therefore, the recycling industry will have to come up with a more apt way to reuse the components of the solar panels, hence preventing the piling up of waste.