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Are Solar Panels Recyclable?

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If you’re interested in investing in solar panels, you probably want to know whether or not you can recycle them. After all, what’s the point of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a solar setup if it will just end up in a landfill and create an even greater demand for precious minerals? This article explores the lifespan of solar panels, their various components, and whether solar panel recycling is possible.

Let’s dive in.

solar panels angled up to sky with trees behind

What Is the Lifespan of a Solar Panel?

All good things must come to an end, and solar panels are no exception. Solar panels’ photovoltaic bodies will slowly break down due to use, but hopefully not until after decades of providing energy.

In fact, most solar panels have a lifespan of 25-30 years. However, this doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically stop working at the 30-year-mark. Solar panels don’t have any moving parts, so unless they experience damage, they’ll simply produce less power over time.

This is called solar panel degradation, and each panel has a certain rate of decline throughout the years. After three solid decades, most solar panels will have lived out their useful lifespans. 

Can You Recycle Solar Panels?

Given the fact that solar panel manufacturing has boomed over the last few decades, many of these panels are now nearing the end of their useful lifespans. So what happens to all of those solar panels coming down off the rooftops of American households? Can we recycle them?

Yes, but recycling a solar panel can be complicated.

The manufacturing process for solar panels makes it difficult to break them down and recycle the individual materials. They’re essentially taken apart and broken down during the recycling process to separate the important components (such as silicone and precious metals).

But finding a profitable way to recycle them poses a challenge. And as technology advances, many new types of solar panels have different materials, which calls for different recycling methods.

cross section of a solar cell graphic

The Components of a Solar Panel

The most important part of a solar panel is its photovoltaic cells. These are the semiconductors that transform sunlight into usable energy. Typically made of silicone, these cells create the outer, flat surface of the panel. They should absorb as many of the sun’s rays as possible.

➡ Find out more about how these photovoltaic cells work here: How Exactly Do Solar Panels Work?

Luckily, the silicone is recyclable, but it can be challenging to separate that out from the rest of the materials.

Furthermore, glass is most of what comes out of the separation process (around 75%). Thankfully, glass is easy to recycle. It’s just not very profitable to recycle.

And lastly, we have precious metals such as copper and silver that make up the busbars and internal wiring of the panel. These are recyclable as well, but turning them into new solar panels might be a challenge, as many new panels don’t use these precious metals. 

What Percentage of Material Is Recovered in Solar Panel Recycling?

The percentage of material recovered in solar panel recycling really depends on the facility that’s doing the recycling. Because solar panel recycling is relatively new (the earliest solar panels are just beginning to die), we simply don’t have the full infrastructure needed to reach peak recycling potential. 

Nevertheless, the European Union is currently doing much better than the United States. Its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive of 2012 put solar panels at “an 85 percent recovery target, 80 percent of which consists of reuse and recycling.” We can only hope that the rest of the world will catch up and find new and innovative ways of reusing old solar panel components. 

Are Solar Panels Designed to Be Recycled?

As mentioned above, solar panel manufacturing makes them difficult to break down. There are many sealants and adhesives involved, making the recycling process a bit more complicated. 

Ultimately, the resources involved matter greatly. Is it worth it for companies to spend the time and effort recycling solar panels? Will they make more in profits than what they spend trying to break down the products? The answer to this isn’t yet clear, so the recycling process probably wasn’t quite figured out when manufacturers built the first solar panels.

A lightbulb, piggy bank and money laying next to a solar panel on turf
Solar panel recycling is still being refined to make the most economical sense. As the first solar panels approach their end-of-life, we expect this to be looked at more closely.

Where You Can Recycle Your Solar Panels

Luckily, companies like Interco and Cleanlites will take old solar panels and turn them into reusable materials. According to Interco, silicone-panel recycling involves dismantling the panels and separating the aluminum and glass, which are both recyclable.

Then, the company heats the rest of the panel to 500 degrees celsius, which disintegrates any plastic adhesives and separates the silicon from the rest of the panel. This process also separates the hardware, which is up to 80% recyclable.

What Else Can You Do With Your Old, Broken, or Unused Solar Panels?

While recycling solar panels is possible, you may want to consider other options before shipping your panels off for recycling. Because most solar panels will still have some use left in them, you can donate them to a company that reuses old panels for volunteer projects. In these situations, any amount of energy helps, and you can feel secure knowing that the panels went to a good cause.

You can also use them on camping trips and for powering small spaces, and even make unique furniture out of them! The possibilities are truly endless. 

➡ Get the most out of your older solar panels by keeping them clean.

It’s Possible to Recycle Solar Panels

So, are solar panels recyclable? Thankfully, the answer is yes. Nevertheless, we’re still at the beginning stages of solar panel recycling, and the infrastructure we need to streamline this process isn’t entirely ready yet. 

Luckily, certain companies are working diligently to make solar panel recycling more efficient and profitable. In the meantime, we can all do our part to creatively repurpose our dying solar panels and keep them from entering landfills.

Do you have any questions about solar panel recycling? Drop them in the comments below!

recycle symbol on solar panel

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