Solar panel waste crisis predicted to hit sooner than expected

How the solar industry is approaching a solar panel waste crisis and what are the proposed solutions for sustainable recycling and responsible management

A recent study by researcher Rong Deng from the University of New South Wales has unveiled an alarming situation within the solar industry. Contrary to previous expectations of a solar panel waste crisis by 2030, the new report predicts this critical point will be reached within the next two or three years.

The paper shines a light on a scenario where, if solar panel production were to increase five to tenfold, we could see the depletion of the world’s silver reserves in less than twenty years. This looming crisis is primarily attributed to Victoria’s uniqueness in banning the disposal of solar panels in landfills and the prohibitive costs of recycling, which range between $10 and $20 per panel.

Currently, most recycling efforts only focus on removing the aluminum frame and cables from panels, neglecting more valuable materials like silicon, silver, and copper due to technical extraction challenges. The white paper proposes a ten-year roadmap for the industry, aiming at the development of advanced technologies for the extraction of precious metals, the establishment of recycling centers in metropolitan areas, and the implementation of a product management program for the photovoltaic sector by 2025. This program will aim to hold manufacturers accountable for the disposal of end-of-life panels, through the promotion of recycling or the application of penalties for non-recycling.

Towards a sustainable solution

Despite the challenges, there is a path to improvement. The lack of a robust recycling infrastructure in Australia, compounded by the previous reliance on exporting waste to China, is a significant obstacle. However, Richard Kirkman of Veolia Australia highlights the importance of government intervention to fund pilot projects that promote the design of easily recyclable panels and the development of large-scale recycling processes. Additionally, the federal government’s announcement to invest 1 billion dollars to increase domestic solar panel production marks a positive step towards a more sustainable solution, potentially making the recycling of panels easier.

The urgency of effective photovoltaic product management is underscored by Jeff Angel of the Total Environment Centre, who criticizes bureaucratic sluggishness and proposes a more decisive regulated approach to the product management program. Collecting all discarded solar panels is deemed crucial to prevent their polluting disposal in landfills, emphasizing the need for a shift in the approach to solar recycling.

Source: Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics

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