Solar panels are primarily made up of reusable materials, such as glass and certain metals (which make up 85% of the panel), as well as polymers and electronic components that require secondary processing. However, recycling solar panels is much more challenging than simple disassembly, with material recovery often costing more than producing new panels.
Nevertheless, there are many reasons to optimize solar panel processing. This includes reducing prices, decreasing production emissions' impact on the environment, and preventing toxic electronic waste from entering landfills.
Why is solar panel processing so important?
Solar panels have a lifespan of 30 years, and as the usage of solar panels continues to increase, so does the waste generated from broken or discarded panels. By 2050, solar panel waste could make up 10% of the world's electronic waste. Today, roughly 90% of solar panels end up in landfills, where they eventually release toxic chemicals into the soil and water supply.
News about solar panels has been reported in major media outlets.
Working principles of solar panel recycling
Glass, plastic, and metal – the main components of solar panels – can be separated and recycled. However, all of these materials combine to form a single product in an operational solar panel. The challenge lies in separating the components for effective processing while also solving the issue with silicon elements, which require specialized processing.
Nevertheless, innovative approaches aimed at optimizing the processing of solar panels continue to emerge. For example, France's VEOLIA is leveraging robots to separate silicon solar panel components for recycling and has already reached a processing capacity of 1,800 tons of solar material. The company plans to increase this productivity to 4,000 tons by 2021.
Current status of solar panel processing
In the United States, due to the time-consuming processing of panel materials and economic considerations, the majority of used solar panels are buried in landfills when reclaimed by manufacturers.
In 2012, the EU released the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, requiring electronic waste, such as solar panels, to be recycled – protecting human health and the environment. Consequently, Europe has become the only continent with solar panel processing centers. Other countries, including Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea, are currently developing solar panel recycling instructions.
How to reuse solar panels
The used solar panel market is an emerging market. When solar panels are returned to manufacturers during the warranty period due to faults, they are typically refurbished and resold. These second-hand solar panels are labeled as being unreliable and not new, resulting in a resale value that is about 70% cheaper than a new panel.
In conclusion, prioritizing the processing and recycling of solar panels is crucial for environmental protection and resource conservation. By optimizing processing and reusing second-hand solar panels, the goal of resource circularity can be achieved.
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